“How do you think the meeting went?” asked the American executive. “It was pretty good,” her Chinese subordinate replied. The American bristled at the lukewarm assessment of her meeting skills, but translator-interpreter Evelyn Yang Garland knew it was just a misunderstanding. “Having learned English in China myself, I know that some Chinese believe that ‘pretty good’ means ‘very good,’” she explains.
With more and more businesspeople working in second and third languages, the scope for miscommunication is enormous, even within a single company. But the language barrier can become a bridge if you keep a few basic principles in mind. For most of us, these ideas are nothing new—though they’re easy to overlook when the focus shifts from customers to employees.
Think about your audience
We’ve all heard this one before, but hitting the right level of information can be hard in an international organization. In fact, says Laurence Cuzzolin, a Paris-based writer and into-French translator, it’s one of the greatest challenges in communicating with a diverse internal audience. “You have to write for everybody—the accountant, the assembly line team, and the saleswoman—without sacrificing substance,” she says, and that means giving the non-specialist enough information without boring the insider. Add two or more languages into the mix and the task becomes even more challenging.
A few quick fixes from the translator’s toolbox:
- Add a box with a brief glossary. “Insiders aren’t always comfortable asking questions, but that’s exactly what a good translator does,” says Cuzzolin. “Some terms are used so much that no one thinks about what they mean any more, and it can be really useful to clarify them. When everyone is working from the same information, it’s easier to move forward together.”