Globalization, the US Economy, and American Culture Change (Part 1 of 2)

September 28, 2010

By Sean Oliver

Globalization is usually talked about in one of two ways: either it’s a one-way export of US culture and English language to other countries around the world, or a systematic takeover of the global economy by major multinational corporations.   While both views have one foot halfway in the doorway of reality, the true story is much more complex, and globalization’s effects are multidirectional; it ends up affecting the US just as much as other countries. 

For example, turn on American children’s cartoons on a Saturday morning, and at least half of them (and the toys that they market) will be produced in Asia.  I hear slang being spoken by kids that’s clearly from other countries: “No worries” (Australia).  Even smaller American companies are doing business with countries where there simply wasn’t much demand or available labor 10-15 years ago (China, India, Brazil, Russia).

Barring a complete global economic collapse, technology isn’t going to stop advancing, particularly if there is no decrease in the demand for more and better access to data.  As this is the case, there are no brakes on the new global economy.  Some Americans have expressed frustration and anger at having to “dial one for English” when they call service lines.  Some don’t like mosques being built (though there have been American mosques since at least 1915).  Some are upset jobs are being outsourced. I can empathize somewhat with the distress of cultural and economic change, except that it’s happening all over the globe.  People are distressed that their traditional values are being replaced by more “Westernized” ones.  Many have to uproot themselves to find work across national borders.  English is increasingly the primary language of instruction in countries where English is not a primary language… (see October 2010 entry for Part 2)


Top 5 Things Heard in Workplaces that Need Cross-Cultural Training

September 24, 2010

By Rebecca Parrilla

1.       “Why can’t they just say what they mean? We can’t be expected to read minds!” 

Hearing a lot of “us” vs. “them” polarizing discussions or comments. Employees encamping themselves with one group or another, without much effort to learn where “they” are coming from, not to mention finding common ground.

2.       “I give up.  They are completely useless!”

Outbursts of frustration showing  loss of motivation and/or a resigned attitude.  Employees vocalizing strongly about issues with another group, and losing willingness to work with the other group, or even to meet them halfway on issues.  Giving up on working with the other team.

3.       “I don’t understand.  This process worked just fine at the home office.”

Exporting home-country policies and procedures to new global locations with different national cultures (and different corporate cultures in the case of M&A), and expecting them to function exactly the same as in home-country locations.  Expectations about processes and how they’re followed, e.g., meetings, tardiness, problem-solving, decision making, and a multitude of other issues will vary widely between cultures.

4.       “You don’t understand how things work here.  This isn’t America.”

Employees feel the differences between their location and the U.S. (or other home country) headquarters aren’t effectively dealt with, are glossed over, or are not recognized at all.  Although declaring and communicating a global, company-wide culture or set of corporate values is useful in providing some direction and common ground, they should only be considered a starting point.  Values are detected with actions and words – the behavioral interpretation of those values.  We can all call excellence, respect, and integrity by name, but how we act out those values day-to-day – in behaviors and words – is highly influenced by our own cultural context and how we’ve been taught to express those values.

 5.         “How hard can it be?  People are basically the same everywhere.”

You’ve just opened up a new location, bought a new business unit, or acquired a new team outside of the home country.  Assuming that you can navigate a few local legal loopholes and talk to the right people, to start churning out business American-style is misguided at best, and can lead to failure, or massive fines.  A quick example?  Easter, which isn’t a national holiday in the United States, is a mandated holiday in many EU member countries.  Ask your employees to work a few extra hours on Easter weekend?  Better hope someone doesn’t report it!


To Train, or Not to Train: Cross Cultural Mindset, or “Just be yourself?”

September 21, 2010

By Sean Oliver

In a recent blog post, the Canadian author of “The Way of the Linguist” wrote the following in regards to the need for intercultural or cross-cultural training:

We need not be so concerned about offending sensitivities. We need to be ourselves, and accept people as they are. We will find people we get along with in all cultures, and others we do not like, on that very basis, just being ourselves. There is no need for cultural sensitivity training in my view, if we use common sense, good will and respect.

Sounds good, right?  Everything here gels with the North American worldview: People are basically good, there are universal standards of good behavior which is what’s important (not the differences), we should be “straight shooters”, and “be ourselves”, and not alter our behavior based on context; “common Sense” will lead to successful interactions, etc.

Of course I’m reading a lot into his statements, but really, where to begin?  Lately, in the US political arena you hear a lot talk about “common sense” solutions, and how if we would all just work according to “common sense”, things would be simpler and problems could be resolved easily.  Of course, the whole concept of common sense is largely mythical; there is no set of concepts and principles that human beings are born with; they are all learned as culture.

The idea that America’s diverse populace would somehow all end up with the same body of “common sense” ingrained in them, seems unlikely: 300 million people from a variety of ethnic and linguistic backgrounds, with lots of regional differences.  To a union autoworker, the ability to look at an appliance, say, a box fan or a toaster, and be able to fix a small defect might be “common sense”.  For an accountant, identifying whether saving money, or paying off credit cards will result in greater financial gain might be “common sense”.

The point I’m getting at, is that when we treat others the way we want to be treated, we assume that everyone wants to be treated the same.  If an American ex-pat is managing a team of Indian workers, and demands yes-or-no answers from his team, he is likely to be frustrated with the fact that they may feel like they lose face if they have to tell him “no, it can’t be done”.  If a UK businessperson on an M&A deal travels to Dubai to speak with the CEO of a company they are trying to acquire, and shakes hands at what they perceive to be the “end” of negotiations, they are likely to be upset upon realizing that the handshake was the beginning of negotiations, as is customary in the Middle East.

Americans, or even Canadians (like the author mentioned above) from majority culture groups have the luxury of usually not having to deviate from what they consider “normal” behavior in most contexts; it’s generally minorities who have to amend their behavior and communication styles to accommodate the worldview of the majority.  If I speak loudly at a library, if I stand very close to a police officer while asking him a question, if I lay out the full context in response to a question (that the asker doesn’t consider the context a necessary part of), the results will probably not be positive.  It’s important to recognize that human worldviews are not universal, and that dealing with the world in the manner that we want to, while it might make us personally feel comfortable, might not achieve our goals.  Training and education on the differences between cultures is an avenue towards understanding ourselves, and ultimately helps succeeding in international business.


Translation Memories, MT and the Future of Language Services (Part 2 of 2)

September 17, 2010

By Sean Oliver

One of the biggest issues for translators and LSPs, is the lack of knowledge their buyers may have, or rather, the translation industry’s failure to communicate their knowledge to their buyers in a way that resonates with them.  Part of the problem is that learning a second language is often difficult, time-consuming, and not always effective without true immersion in a language & culture.  It’s particularly problematic when working with Americans or American companies, as only 9% are fluent in a language other than English (nearly 50% of Europeans speak two languages).  (Sources: US Census 2000, European Commission Directorate General for Education and Culture, respectively)

If a person has never lived abroad, learned a second language, or experienced being a cultural/linguistic minority, differences between languages and cultures can be totally lost on them.  They may adopt a Universalist perspective: “we’re all basically the same,” and tend to have an attitude minimizing the differences between themselves and those from different cultures.  The best-educated of translation purchasers, as educated about the process as they may be, often don’t speak another language, and the challenges of working across languages will often not be intuitive to them. 

The same applies to Machine Translation; I recently attended a meeting about Translation Management Systems with a translation technology provider, and their salespeople shared that nearly every day they get calls from translation buyers who are extremely excited about the cost-savings and speed of MT… until they realize how it works, and the generally lower level of quality it produces.  In the end, it’s the translator’s/LSP’s responsibility to explain to the buyer how MT works, and why its quality tends to generally be lower to translation buyers.

With globalization, the global marketplace is going to place higher and higher price and volume pressures on translators and LSPs.  There are ways to try to control cost without losing quality or turnaround, including employing TMs on the translation buyer’s side to re-use as much content as possible.  Content Management Systems (CMS) and Translation Management Systems (TMS) are currently the most advanced ways to accomplish cost controls, by tracking the changes made between documents and showing or suggesting to content creators specific pieces of content that can be re-used to save money.   The problem with both systems is that they can be cumbersome, initially expensive, may require dedicated servers, and will require training the content creators on software, technology, and topics that they are completely unfamiliar with, and whose significance they may not initially buy into.

I eventually anticipate a kind of “tagged” version of Google Translate, or similar software; in my opinion, GT’s main disadvantage right now is that there is no differentiation of the content.  My English electrical engineering content gets fed into the same Translation Memory as 1600’s century French literature, and Japanese advertising copy.  If Google can determine a way to tag the content that gets fed into it, by both its web-scouring technology and its user-entered content, we could see an eventual revolution in MT, and language services as a whole.


Translation Memories, MT, and the Future of Language Services (Part 1 of 2)

September 14, 2010

By Sean Oliver

There’s been quite a bit of discussion lately about machine translation and the ultimate role of the human translator in the rapidly changing translation and localization industry.  Machine translation tools (like BabelFish and GoogleTranslate) are extremely fast, cost effective, and usually open-sourced.   However, along with the benefits come disadvantages as well.  First, the text isn’t encrypted, so if you have privacy concerns, using either tool is not advisable.  Second, particularly in the case of Google, they won’t release the contents of their translation memory, and any text that you casually run through the translation engine, and any edits or final products produced by translators using the engine become Google’s property… forever.  Essentially, you’re giving them content for free.  There’s also a danger in crowdsourcing, as there have been cases of renegade “translators” inserting their own “translations” into crowdsourced platforms like Facebook, resulting in profane language on customer interfaces.  

All issues aside, it’s pretty clear that some form of MT is going to play a major role in the future of translation.  While machine-generated translations are always going to require a final human review due to the fluid nature of language and the nuances of context and culture, the cost-savings that can be realized by using MT are significant.  Even at a rate of 25 cents per word for high-level translating and proofreading, a 5,000 word document will cost around $1,250 per language.  Now, take the same content and run it through an open source translator, and have a skilled translator post-edit what the MT produces… even if this content is complex and takes the translator a whole day, the cost savings can still be significant. 

Professional translators have been vocal in their dislike of MT…  Why?  For starters, translation is an art, not a science, and understanding the meaning of text is not the same as being able to effectively communicate that meaning back in another language.  Translators also have to invest an enormous amount of time and energy in learning and perfecting their craft, and translators have spent the past millennia working with virtually the same tools.  The fax machine was revolutionary; computers and email more so, and now CAT tools (Computer Assisted Translation) have increased speed and efficiency, decreased rates, and have changed the industry again…  but many translators are under increasing price and time pressures, and some of them see MT as just another “innovation” that will erode pricing.

In the 7th century AD, a Spanish scholar wrote that it was “impossible to notate music”… how alien does that idea seem today? Not being able to read music from paper would be unthinkable.  Now today we have an online music service which categorizes music not just by genre, but by genome and makes recommendations based on other songs you “like”.  Such revolutionary technological changes will have to happen in the language services industry as well; the costs are currently just too high, and turnarounds too slow to support our rapidly globalizing economy.


Open Communication: Benefit of Connecting Clients with Translation Teams

September 10, 2010

By Maria Fagrelius

The benefits of open lines of communication between virtual teams is a hot topic in many industries, including the translation industry. Every day, translators and proofreaders are in direct contact with each other when working on LCW translation and localization projects. We find that open communication between the linguists generally improves quality and the speed of delivery. Teams communicating directly means resolving disagreements and getting clarification on the spot, shaving time off of the project life cycle, as well as helping with time zones issues since most of the teams are located within their native language countries.  In addition, our translation teams have been working together for several years now, have created real connections, and are very familiar with each other’s styles and preferences; outside of any style guides or special instructions provided by the client.

Why don’t we apply this open communication model to the relationship between translators and clients? Most of our clients have internal reviewers who review the translation under company style guidelines, to assure the final product reflects the reviewer’s internal knowledge of the company, and general tone of the rest of the company’s content… But sometimes our project managers will notice a disconnect between the client’s internal reviewers and the translation team, even if both parties are the best at what they do, and even in cases where the translation team has worked on the same client materials for years (even a decade).

To help improve this occasional disconnect, we decided to open a channel of communication between the translator, proofreader, and the client’s internal reviewers (a long time client). We hosted conference calls between the client’s internal reviewers and our translation team, who were sometimes located in different countries such as France and Côte d’Ivoire.  We prepared a draft agenda with questions they could ask each other as a reference, and freedom to lead the conversation in any direction they felt was necessary to improve the translation process and outcomes.  Some examples of the agenda items: “Expectations when reviewing translations”, “Any changes in translation style, process or others”, and “Cultural awareness in the translation materials, do written communications sound too ‘American’ in their locations”.  We conducted the conference calls in the participants’ native language to make sure everyone would be comfortable on the call, and in order to discuss any specific terminology in their own native language. Were these calls worth the time and effort? Yes, very much so!

After each set of translators, proofreaders, and reviewers discussed and reported any issues, concerns or future action items, reviewers and translators were “connected”; that is to say, translations were better than ever (at least in the reviewer’s eyes) and “stylistic changes” have been reduced in the majority of the cases.  Open communication between all parties involved made a complicated process less painful and why not, more enjoyable!

We’d love to hear about your experiences: translators, translation buyers, project managers, and especially internal reviewers.  Have you worked on an open project structure such as this before?  What have been your impressions, both good and bad?


Spanish and French: Will “International” translations resonate with your audience?

September 7, 2010

By Sean Oliver

Recently we’ve been involved with two large translation projects where the client requested “international” French translations for France and Canada, and Spanish translations for Spain and South/Latin America.  Is this a good idea?  What are the benefits, and what are the risks of trying to create a single translation for cross-oceanic audiences?

As is usually the case with translation, content is king.  If your content is very basic, and does not contain a lot of technical terms, i.e. a press release, then an international version may communicate your message effectively.  However, legal, medical, engineering, or other technical content is likely to contain enough differences to make creating a local version advisable.  Keep in mind that even with very basic content, different words can be used for very common things, such as the word for “computer”:  computadora in Latin America, and ordenador in Spain.  The same applies to French: “drink”, France: boisson.  Québec: breuvage.

Both audiences might be able to understand the different word choices, but then again, they might not.  Ask yourself if you know what a “lorry” is (UK English for “truck”), then, if you do, ask your co-workers if they know.  It’s likely at least some of your co-workers will not be familiar with the term.  They may be able to understand it in a text by using context clues, but keep in mind that this is the same thought process that the readers of your international translation may have to go through.

There is really only one benefit to international versions of French and Spanish: cost.  While cost is always a driving factor, purchasers of translation services need to weigh the benefits of saving the extra money, and risking their audience not fully understanding the message of the translation.  If your code of conduct is being translated and disseminated internationally, for example, then what risks do you take on by producing a translation that may not be 100% clear in its meaning?  The risks can be significant, especially considering some codes of conduct are already rooted in US/UK law and cultural perspectives of what constitutes compliance, ethics, bribery, etc.

A good middle approach is having a Spain or Latin American Spanish translation produced from scratch, and then having a local translator adapt that translation to suit the local audience.  This will almost always be cheaper than producing a brand new translation in both languages, but will be better understood by local audiences.


Accent on the Accent: Perceptions of Non-Native Speakers

September 3, 2010

By Sean Oliver

A recent study published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology by University of Chicago psychologist Boaz Keysar, shows that unconsciously, listeners are less likely to find speakers with an accent credible or trustworthy, and that the level of doubt increases with the “severity” of the accent.  The listeners “…misattribute the difficulty of understanding the speech to the truthfulness of the statements,” according to Keysar. 

Should this result surprise anyone?  There is a lot of research going on around how (American) children see and perceive cultural and physical differences, and the overwhelming majority of these studies shows that if the topic is never broached at home (in the hopes that the child will be “colorblind”), the children are likely to have less favorable reactions to people they perceive as different from themselves.

Human beings are cultural; we have to learn almost everything…. But one exception might be somewhat of a natural preference for ones’ own group, or those we perceive to be part of our own group, whether that perception has any basis in fact or not.  If we don’t get information as children (or as adults), about how things such as language, accent, color, religion, and even culture don’t determine another person’s value, it seems that we’re likely to create unfavorable opinions on our own.  Of course, exceptions probably apply for “third culture kids” (kids brought up in ethnically diverse environments, or kids brought up in multi-ethnic families). Third culture kids are probably less likely to perceive ingroup/outgroup on the basis of personal appearance. 

To sum up, it can be damaging to not discuss differences between people.  On the Developmental Model of Intercultural Sensitivity, the tendency to believe that all people are the same is called “minimization,” where a person generally dismisses the importance of cultural differences between people.  Minimization tends to be a common mindset, especially in the US; keep in mind that while conversations about differences between people can be difficult or uncomfortable, they have the potential to lead to greater understandings of ourselves, our own culture, and people from other cultures.  What the real differences are, versus our initial perception of those differences, will never become clear for us, unless we’re willing to show a little vulnerability and have a conversation about them.