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Top-Shelf Tip No. 117:

"Cultural differences should not separate us from each other, but rather cultural diversity brings a collective strength that can benefit all of humanity."

Robert Alan

Lost In Translation

I recently paid a translation service to translate some brochure copy from English to Spanish. When I sent the invoice to my manager, she questioned why I had spent the dollars on an outside service rather that utilizing one of our staff members who is bilingual. I had to explain that the translation needed to be accurate and verified, which the employee was not qualified or trained to do, even though she speaks Spanish.

This is just one of the misconceptions that's common when working in an organization with a multicultural and multilingual staff. Martin Cross, president of Patent Translations, Inc., shares these tips when working from the inside out of your organization.

You don't know until you ask: Most modern managers have better sense than to assume an employee can speak a language based on their last name or their ethnicity, but it's easy to let ourselves make opposite assumptions. In an increasingly international world, where it is easier than ever to live and study abroad, Tim O'Brien from Milwaukee may be your best Japanese speaker, and Gloriana Rodriguez may have grown up in France.

When looking internally for employees with language abilities, make sure that you reach out to everyone. Consider asking your human resources manager to include linguistic skills in the employee database for easy reference.

Keep it simple: Just as being tall does not make you a basketball player, being able to speak two languages does not make you a translator. Many bilingual people will be able to read something for you and tell you what it says, or help with some basic business correspondence. But being able to produce a complete written translation that is stylistically note-perfect and faithful to the original requires a special skill set and years of training. Asking an untrained employee to take on the role of a professional translator is unlikely to be cost-effective. You not only risk receiving subpar quality, but the unfamiliar task will require considerable time.

Direction matters: Few people are as fluent in their second language as they are in their mother tongue. That's the reason why most professional translators only translate into their native language. You simply understand the nuances of the language you grew up speaking better than a language you learned in school or as an adult. A bilingual employee may do a great job helping you to understand emails or documents written in their second language, but that does not mean they can write in that language at a level that is suitable for business. And keep in mind that you have no way of judging the quality of that writing.

Culture is key: Cultural awareness is not just about avoiding accidentally offending people. Understanding how your campaigns, products and services will fit another culture is key. Providing you with this insight is one of the greatest contributions your multilingual and multicultural staff members can make. Your employees understand your product and what you are trying to achieve, making them ideally positioned to give feedback around cultural expectations. A knowledgeable employee may even help you discover marketing advantages that your product may have in the target culture, which you might otherwise miss.

Involve your multilingual and multicultural staff and make the most of their valuable insights.

Source: Martin Cross is the president of Patent Translations Inc., serving law firms and patent departments in the U.S. and abroad, and an active corporate member of the American Translators Association.

Compiled by Cassandra Johnson

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