The Secret to Effective Translation

Across the globe — in education, business, public relations, and politics — many companies continue to miss the mark when it comes to the translation of their content. Whether the translation is too literal or just not engaging in the other language, businesses are left scratching their heads as to why they can’t seem to fully “tap into” the markets of other languages.

Technology like AI and Google Translate has an immediate appeal as an easy solution, especially for those who don’t speak another language. They see it as a convenient fix when it comes to their products being able to be extended to markets in other languages. Time and effort are put into these perceived solutions, with thousands of words translated only for the product not to sell. Companies are left wondering what went wrong. To fully understand why, however, one must have experienced situations in which other languages and contexts are at play. Only then can a person appreciate what language is truly about.

Language goes far beyond textbook grammar. It sinks deep into the social and cultural aspects with which it is intrinsically intertwined. For many, this is often not appreciated, especially when they have never had an experience in which language has been defined or compared to something other than itself. Imagine that all your life you have only spoken one language and lived in one country. Your only experience with other countries or cultures was perhaps through short trips or vacations. On these trips, your survival wasn’t necessarily dependent on you speaking a different language. There was no need to really consider the other language or culture beyond your short-lived experience from your trip. Without first-hand experience, there is a lack of understanding, not because the person may not want to understand, but because there is no need for it.

Our human nature and reasoning processes tend to prioritize what we feel is needed or what we specifically seek out based on personal interest. This reality reiterates to us that unless a person has been in an environment where they are genuinely dependent on communication in a different language for survival, they may not be able to understand the complexity of different cultures and languages, because they have not been forced to notice differences between their own culture and language and those of others.

Deep appreciation and understanding cannot come without experience. My own experience has taught me this from growing up in multiple countries and learning various languages. When in a new place, your survival in expressing meaning and receiving what is needed is based on your ability to speak the language not only literally but also within the correct context. This is experienced very quickly when people move to other countries in often quite hilarious situations. One example might be thinking you are ordering chicken breast only to have the butcher stare blankly with a giggle as you request a pound of chicken boobs in another language. Through that experience, you immediately learn that literal translations can often be offensive or mean something completely different! These experiences hold immense value because they teach the speaker what language is all about.

The secret to effective translation is not in translating content but in translating in context. Multiculturalism and multilingualism cannot effectively exist without each other. This explains why machines and textbooks don’t always lead to high-quality translations. What might have a specific tone or connotation in one language might convey something different in the other. If a company’s goal is to translate the value of its product into another language, the translation cannot be based solely on vocabulary and grammar, but rather on real-life cultural and linguistic competence. Without it, the company will have no real and current context from which to draw, and for others to relate to. Real people with multicultural and multilingual life experience are integral parts of successful companies with a diverse or global view. But, unfortunately, a lack of real-life experience in different languages and cultures continues to cause this secret to go unnoticed and missed.

To achieve quality translated products that reach the masses, it will take investment that goes beyond convenience and machine or textbook translation. By investing in quality translation by multilingual professionals with multicultural experience, a company invests in its product’s full value in other spheres. Only when the secret to effective translation is appreciated and understood can companies successfully reach other markets and fulfill their potential.

Rachel Hawthorne
Rachel Hawthorne's childhood in Central and South America kindled her passion for language and culture. With a background in linguistics and bilingual education, she embarked on a career as a bilingual teacher and administrator and currently serves as an English learner Content Developer and Specialist for a curriculum company.


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