This article was updated on July 19, 2018.
What's the mark of a truly global organization? Context. The ability to communicate — with both consumers and employees — in the language they prefer, in a way that makes sense and isn't patronizing, overly simplistic or hilariously misinformed. While in-house translators and outsourced services have historically taken on this role, businesses are now looking to technology as a way to bridge the language gap and empower a truly global workforce.
Here's a look at the emerging role of translation tech in the workplace.
Overcoming Obstacles and Misunderstandings
What would cause expat international assignments or multinational teams to fail? While market forces or industry climate may play a role, cultural difficulties — often a result of language barriers — can quickly sink any global effort. Consider globally aware brand Nike, which released a set of special edition shoes with Chinese characters sewn on each. As noted by Business Insider, while the characters were fine in isolation, together they translated to "getting fat."
Interpersonal interactions can also suffer at the hands of cultural misunderstandings. For example, according to Japanese Business Resource, businesspeople are rarely brash or aggressive in Japan and it's considered rude to be the first person sitting down at a table. Organizations must also be mindful of linguistic differences in-house, especially in satellite offices where employees speak English as a second language. While training to improve their English skill set is often welcome, ignoring the established cultural norms and language in favor of creating familiar office culture can be devastating to morale and your bottom line.
There's an App for That
With many small businesses now able to achieve worldwide visibility thanks to the shrinking costs and increasing performance of cloud computing and mobile devices, there's a greater need for cross-cultural understanding. One solution is mobile apps and in-browser technologies, which perform translation services on the fly.
As noted by PC Tech Magazine, Skype now offers live, voice-to-voice translation for seven languages, and Google Translate provides online support for 103 different languages. Google's Word Lens app lets users photograph and instantly translate foreign signage. Another cutting edge initiative is Pilot from Waverly Labs, an earpiece and app that automatically translates in real time. Yet despite superb design and excellent technical knowledge, there's still a missing piece — human context.
While 103 languages is impressive, consider that there are hundreds of languages and dialects around the world. While Mandarin is used for business transactions in China, Omniglot details 13 other major varieties of the language, many of which are substantially different. And it doesn't stop there.
Specific regions use their own local dialects, and slang words come and go quickly thanks to increasing internet access. What's more, speakers may improvise based on context, using words that normally carry another meaning but are altered based on the time, location and nature of the conversation.
This is where language apps can fall short — not only do they rely on word-for-word translations, but they aren't able to cope with speaker improvisation or word use that doesn't conform to standard interpretations. As a result, even some of the most advanced products on the market will green light translations or interpretations that differ significantly from the intended message. The results range from humor at small miscommunications, to lost time and effort as information is recalled and corrected, to a total market failure if large cultural missteps are made.
Solving this problem among a global workforce could mean adopting a three-part strategy. First, embrace technology where applicable. Websites and basic online communications often benefit from straightforward translation. Next, reach out to current employees and ask about their pain points in dealing with corporate expectations and language barriers — are there cultural norms being overlooked or linguistic problems cropping up in day-to-day operations? Last but not least, spend the money on in-country experts for big projects and mission-critical translations. These experts not only understand the local language in context, but leverage cultural and geographical knowledge to correctly interpret regional dialects and ensure any translation projects don't miss the mark. These experts are especially useful in helping your brand develop a reputation for authenticity by correctly employing slang and jargon.
To empower a global workforce, enterprises shouldn't shy away from language lessons. Understand potential failure points, use technology where applicable and invest in local experts.