Category Archives: Martin Cross

(Bilingual) Help Wanted

By Martin Cross

Janet, a personnel manager at a fast-growing start-up, hoped to give her company a competitive edge in an international field by recruiting bilingual employees. She got some unexpected results.

Her first big surprise was discovering that many applicants who made no mention of language skills on their resumes reported being able to speak two, three or sometimes even more languages, when asked about it in the interview. This made Janet wonder: How common is this hidden talent? So, she sent a questionnaire to her entire staff and was amazed to find that many them were in fact multilingual.

However, not all of Janet’s discoveries were positive. As a start-up, the company was very interested in what other businesses were doing, and the plan was to have the new staff spend some of their time translating advertising and documentation from foreign competitors. Armed with that information, they then planned to reach out to potential clients in those countries.

One of the new hires did well at the translation task but the others, despite having described themselves as fluent, were so slow that the company’s bottom-line costs exceeded the price for outsourcing the same service. To make matters worse, the engineers found the translations hard to read.

Meanwhile, a sales department recruit who had said, in the interview, that he was fluent in the language that his parents spoke at home, later told his supervisor that he was unable to make sales calls in that language.A multilingual workforce can respond more quickly and flexibly to both opportunities and challenges. Click To Tweet

There is more to language than conversation

Janet had been operating under the common misconception that someone who is conversationally fluent in a second language will be able to do everything in that language that they can do in English. The truth is that, while about a quarter of Americans can hold a conversation in a foreign tongue, conversational fluency is only one of a broad range of language skills.

Your ten-year-old nephew may speak English fluently, yet if you hand him your company’s year-end reports, the vocabulary and syntax will stump him before he has finished the first sentence. Likewise, being able to chat about the weather or sports in Spanish or Korean in no way means that you can speak business Spanish or technical Korean.

Even in situations that do not require any special jargon, such as telephone prospecting for sales leads, the ability to set the right tone and project confidence requires an exceptionally high level of linguistic skill. A person who has only spoken their second language at home with their family, or learned it during a college year abroad, is unlikely to have such mastery.

Skills are learned

The skills gap is even more pronounced when it comes to writing. While our high schools and universities do their best to instill good writing habits in their students, many of us have difficulty producing even an email that is completely free of errors.

As you can imagine, it’s harder still to write well in a second language. In fact, unless you have used a language as your primary work or study language for many years, it is nearly impossible to write at a level in keeping with corporate professionalism.

Another surprising linguistic fact is that even people who have mastered two languages, such as immigrants who began their careers abroad and have since settled into English, may not necessarily be good translators. Understanding what is written on the page and being able to choose the right words to recraft that same message in another language are two very distinct skills.

Many years of study and practice, as well as a host of specialized tools and resources, are needed for professional translators to reach a level at which they can work efficiently and confidently. Asking an untrained staff member to take on translation work may be counterproductive and expensive. It may even involve serious risk in the case of documents with the potential for major business impact, such as contracts, user manuals, or advertising.

For similar reasons, because interpreters (who convey the spoken word) need very different skill sets than translators (who work with written text), even translators with years of experience will likely struggle to serve as an interpreter at an ordinary business meeting.

Lessons learned

Janet wasn’t wrong in seeing bilingual recruiting as tool to boost international competitiveness, but she needed more information to make good decisions. Rather than simply asking candidates if they spoke any other languages, she should have gone one step further and inquired about the specific tasks she was hoping to have them perform.

She learned some important lessons: If you want someone to review technical documents in a foreign language, it’s best to ask them up front if they feel confident reading such material in that language, not to mention what related experience or education they have to support that confidence.

She also found that she needed to hire someone with foreign language sales experience if that person was to make sales calls overseas. Likewise, relevant training and experience was a must for translations and interpreting.

Linguistic capital is a powerful addition to any international team. It can open windows of insight and doors of opportunity. A multilingual workforce can respond more quickly and flexibly to both opportunities and challenges.

In fact, your company’s language skills could be your decisive edge, so it pays to get the right ones. By understanding your specific needs and diving deeper into the language skills of your staff and potential recruits, you’ll make the most of your “(Bilingual) Help Wanted” sign.

Martin Cross is the president of Patent Translations Inc., serving law firms and patent departments in the US and abroad, and an active corporate member of the American Translators Association. The American Translators Association represents over 10,000 translators and interpreters across 103 countries. Along with advancing the translation and interpreting professions, ATA promotes the education and development of language services providers and consumers alike. For more information on ATA or translation and interpreting professionals, please visit www.atanet.org.

Going International from the Inside Out

Making the Most of Multilingual and Multicultural Staff

By Martin Cross

Last year, a mid-sized manufacturer took their brand international with a multilingual campaign that opened the company to orders from rapidly growing markets in Asia. In the process, their accounting department saved them a great deal of money, but not in the way you would expect.

The owner had found a translation agency with a strong track record in mainland China to produce a Chinese-language version of their website and promotional materials. When the work was done, she asked several Chinese speakers on her staff to review the translation. One person in accounting noticed that the translation of the company’s name had an awful connotation in the region where she grew up. By catching the problem early, they were able to have the agency change the translation so that it sounded appropriate in all the regions where Chinese is spoken, before the materials were printed and the website went live. In the end, they not only avoided the high costs of making changes later or creating separate materials for that regional market, they also prevented permanent damage to the brand.

As business becomes increasingly global, there is a growing need to communicate in multiple languages and understand multiple cultures. The question is: are you making the most of your human resources? Your multilingual and multicultural staff are great assets when it comes to marketing in other countries, product development, B2B relationships and translation quality assurance. But when working from the inside out, it is important to avoid some common pitfalls.

You don’t know until you ask: 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 everybody gets the memo. Consider asking your human resources people to include linguistic skills in your 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 out 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. Cultural awareness is not just about avoiding accidentally offending people. Click To Tweet

When tapping into your bilingual assets, be sure you know their limits. Use them to get the gist of foreign documents, help you decide what needs to be professionally translated, and review the translations that you have sourced externally.

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 things written in their second language, but that does not mean that 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.

As a rule of thumb, it is best not to ask a staff member to write a letter to a foreign associate or client if that employee did not at least complete high school in a country where the language was spoken.

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.

The trick is to involve them in the entire process, from the early planning stages to the final review before a campaign is launched. And because culture is all about nuance, try to meet with them in person. You’d be surprised how much more insightful and productive it is.

If you’re looking to grow your business, venturing into the global marketplace is a big step, and it’s not without risks. Understanding the importance of language and culture reduces the risk and helps you avoid unnecessary pitfalls. Take inventory of your existing human resources and involve your multilingual and multicultural staff in planning and executing your international ventures. By making the most of their assets, you’ll be in a stronger position right from the start.

Martin Cross is the president of Patent Translations Inc., serving law firms and patent departments in the US and abroad, and an active corporate member of the American Translators Association. The American Translators Association represents over 10,000 translators and interpreters across 91 countries. Along with advancing the translation and interpreting professions, ATA promotes the education and development of language services providers and consumers alike. For more information on ATA or translation and interpreting professionals, please visit www.atanet.org.

Legal Risks in Translations: Hanging On Every (Foreign) Word

By Martin Cross

Janel and her business partner Kevin go all in on their wearable-tech startup. They even get foreign patents translated into English to make sure there are no conflicts with their idea. Three years later, when their products are finally hitting the shelves, they receive a cease and desist letter. One of the Japanese patents that they had translated is now in force in the US with significantly different wording than their translation. In the US version of the patent, the term that their translator had rendered as “foot” is translated as “lower limb.”

This would cover Janel and Kevin’s device, which senses movement in the knees. It seems minor, but the difference in wording could render their own patent application invalid, and possibly put their business on the hook for infringement. Their attorney runs the matter by two different experts, but the facts are clear: while in casual conversation, the Japanese term can often refer to just the foot, according to any dictionary, it can also refer to the entire limb.

So, the Japanese patent covers their device – and years of work go down the drain. Janel and Kevin learn a hard business lesson of the globalized world: in matters of law, every word counts, even when written in another language.

Similar risks arise when translating agreements, contracts, specifications, annual reports, bills of sale and even some letters. In questions of evidence, such as for patents, it is the original document that counts and inaccurate translations can be contested in court. In other situations, the translation itself can be paramount, even when it is wrong. If you are using a French court to enforce a contract signed in French, it doesn’t much matter what the original English version said.

To avoid translation problems, it is useful to understand how they happen. In every language, individual words can have multiple meanings. Think about the possible meanings for “sentence,” or “right,” or even “impregnate.” Meanwhile, words don’t map one-to-one into other languages. For example, the Chinese word for “sentence,” meaning a grammatical unit, is different from the Chinese word for “sentence,” meaning a punishment. To pick the right one, a translator must first understand the exact meaning of the words in the original context. Now think about how well the average person understands each word in a contract, let alone in a patent, which brings us to these rules.

Use a Specialist: You wouldn’t go to your dermatologist to set your broken leg, and you shouldn’t have your legal or scientific translations done by the translator who localized your website. Find a translator or translation agency that specializes in the type of document that you need translated.

The next problem is caused by being human. When Gutenberg invented the printing press, the first and biggest impact was the elimination of transcription errors that, before the year 1439, had made each version of hand-copied manuscripts a little different. In the same vein, if you’ve ever played the children’s game “telephone,” you will have seen how easily humans make errors when they try to reproduce phrases faithfully. Now think about doing it between two languages! Because people also have trouble spotting their own errors, the best practice is to have one or even two additional translators review the first translator’s work.

Use a Team: Translation agencies have different quality assurance processes, from no-review, to spot-checking, to three-person verification. If the document could have important legal consequences, talk to your provider about their process. For critical translations, it may even pay to hire your own independent reviewer.

If you are starting to wonder how much all this costs, you’re asking a good question. What Janel and Kevin really needed for their patent translation was a person who was not only fluent in Japanese and English, but who would also understand the circuit technology involved in wearable devices, and know patent law well enough to grasp that the broadest interpretation of the terms would be required in the translation. They also needed one or two more similarly qualified people to check the translation and someone to coordinate all those things.

Beware of Bargains: If mistakes could hurt your business, don’t go with the place that offers to cut costs without first making sure that they won’t cut quality.

If you will be submitting the translation to a court or government agency, you may need to have it certified. But even in cases where a certification is not required by law, requesting one puts the translation provider on notice, right from the start, that you need a true and faithful translation for legal purposes, rather than the looser, more broadly interpretive renderings that are prepared for simple information.

Get it Certified: A certification is a statement of the translator’s good faith belief that the translation is true to the original, not a guarantee of accuracy, so don’t forget rules 1 through 3.

Of course, not every translation requires this level of expertise. Even a machine translation may be enough to tell you whether a foreign patent has any connection to your invention. Likewise, a bilingual administrative assistant might be able to prepare a first-draft translation of an agreement when you are still in the negotiating stage. But before you pick up your pen to sign a contract, or commit to spending the next few years working on a new product, make sure that the final translation is reliable. Be sure it was prepared by a specialist who was backed up by a team. Make certain you have good reason to be confident in the quality. And see that the translation has been certified.

These simple steps can make all the difference when your success depends on every foreign word.

Martin Cross is the president of Patent Translations Inc., serving law firms and patent departments in the US and abroad, and an active corporate member of the American Translators Association. The American Translators Association represents over 10,000 translators and interpreters across 91 countries. Along with advancing the translation and interpreting professions, ATA promotes the education and development of language services providers and consumers alike. For more information on ATA or translation and interpreting professionals, please visit www.atanet.org.