Don’t Worry, They’re Just Words: Lost in Translation

Communication is often difficult enough when we are all speaking the same language.

It becomes even more difficult when your target audience is more comfortable using a different language.

A report released by the Center for Immigration Studies pointed out that one in five U.S. residents now speak a language other than English at home. Furthermore, the U.S. Census Bureau reports that this percentage is much higher in several major metropolitan areas in the United States. In fact, in Los Angeles and Miami, over half of the population 5 and older speak a language other than English at home.

The Washington Times article that talks about the overall percentage of U.S. residents who now speak a different language at home points out that English might be spoken some of the time.

According to the article, “Although many of those are bilingual, more than 25 million residents say they speak English at levels they would rate as less than “very well,” according to the report, which is based on the latest Census Bureau figures.”

This can be a problem for communications professionals who are trying to inform and influence customers and prospects about a brand’s products or services.

In many cases, in order to reach some of their potential customers, the brand’s messaging will need to be translated from English into another language.

In some cases, specific ad campaigns will need to be created to appeal to customers of different cultural and ethnic backgrounds.

However, as studies have shown, when translating from one language to another, care needs to be taken as even the structure of another language can change the way the message is received, and thus impact its effectiveness.

Languages Force Us to Think Differently

As a 2010 New York Times article explains, “SINCE THERE IS NO EVIDENCE that any language forbids its speakers to think anything, we must look in an entirely different direction to discover how our mother tongue really does shape our experience of the world. Some 50 years ago, the renowned linguist Roman Jakobson pointed out a crucial fact about differences between languages in a pithy maxim: “Languages differ essentially in what they must convey and not in what they may convey.” This maxim offers us the key to unlocking the real force of the mother tongue: if different languages influence our minds in different ways, this is not because of what our language allows us to think but rather because of what it habitually obliges us to think about.”

For example, English requires that we use tenses, thus communicating whether an event happened in the past, present, or future. In comparison, Chinese does not force people to think about when something happened because the same verb is used to describe an event that takes place in the past, the present, or the future.

As the article goes on to point out, “Again, this does not mean that the Chinese are unable to understand the concept of time. But it does mean they are not obliged to think about timing whenever they describe an action.”

On the other hand, English does not force us to conjugate verbs to show the gender of a person who we are talking about each time they are mentioned. However, this is a requirement for people who are speaking in French, German, or Spanish.

It is interesting to note that in many languages, a male or female gender is also assigned to inanimate objects.

Even more interesting is the fact that this influences how people see these objects.

As the New York times article points out, “When speakers were asked to grade various objects on a range of characteristics, Spanish speakers deemed bridges, clocks and violins to have more “manly properties” like strength, but Germans tended to think of them as more slender or elegant. With objects like mountains or chairs, which are “he” in German but “she” in Spanish, the effect was reversed.”

These are just two examples of how language has an effect on the way that people see the world around them.

If you search on Google, you can find many additional examples.

Final Thoughts

Back in 2012, I wrote a few posts about the important role that the words that we choose to use play in communication.

In particular, I pointed out how changing one word can have a huge impact on the message conveyed to the recipient. In some cases, the omission of a word can also completely change the meaning. I also highlighted the fact that social media is often like the telephone game, where the original message changes as it gets passed from person to person.

As I stated in one of the posts, “At times, the ideas that we are trying to convey to others might not be properly communicated because the intended recipients don’t understand the meanings of the words that we use. (In some cases, the words that we use might actually have different meanings among people with different cultural backgrounds.)”

“In other words, what we are trying to say might get lost in translation even if the people who we are trying to reach speak the same language,” I continued.

As I pointed out in this post, it gets even more complicated by the fact that various languages force us to think about different things, and therefore change the way that we experience the world.

Therefore, businesses need to understand that even though they may intend to send the same message to potential customers when their communications are translated into different languages, the message won’t necessarily be received in the same way because of subtle differences in the way each language is structured.

In other words, the message can truly be lost in translation.

What follows is a Ted Talk given by behavioral economist Keith Chen. In the talk, he explains how these subtle differences in languages correlate with our willingness to save for the future.

Video credit: TED on YouTube.

Chad Thiele

Marketing analyst and strategist, content curator, applied sociologist, proud UW-Madison alumnus, and an Auburn-trained mobile marketer. My goal is to help businesses identify trends that will help them achieve their marketing objectives and business goals. I'm currently looking for my next career challenge. Please feel free to contact me anytime at: chadjthiele@gmail.com.

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