Job Titles: Sending the Right Message to Potential Employees

We've all applied for jobs. How do we go about deciding which applications to complete? First, we ascertain what positions are available. The job title serves as the first clue as to whether the opening being advertised is something we have the skills or the desire to do.

What if your company desires to recruit and work with individuals who speak other languages? Sending the right message is equally important in the foreign language if we are to find the best people for the positions. If only it were equally simple.

This topic is discussed by Mark L. Levinson on Elephant, which deals with writing and translation issues in Israel. He begins the column by debating what the proper English equivalent is for a particular Hebrew job title. In consulting various dictionaries, he comes across many (largely awkward-sounding) possibilities. However, he points out, the word was translated into English in a novel simply as "manager," a term which hadn't even surfaced in his extensive search.

Why is finding equivalents so tricky? Each culture runs its organizations differently. Individuals who perform similar roles may be called different things depending on the industry. For example, Levinson points out that the term "director general" is used in the public sector, whereas "CEO, managing director, or sometimes president" may apply to an equivalent private sector role.

Because so much meaning is packed into a job title, having expert translators familiar with business and culture in the target location help you with recruitment documents will go a long way to ensuring that the process of hiring the best people goes the way you hope it will.

What's in a Name? Sometimes, a Big Difference

What do you call the people who do sign language for those who cannot hear? They're sign language interpreters. What do you call the language that is written for people who cannot see? Braille. One more question, and this one's trickier: who is the man sitting between President Obama and President Mahmoud Abbas in this picture? 

If you came up with the term "translator," you're not alone, but, unfortunately, you're also wrong. There is a parallel between the fields mentioned above and the two branches of linguistic conversion. Translators can be compared with Braille readers/writers, while interpreters perform duties similar to those of their sign language counterparts.

Translators take written words and change them into written words in another language. Translators work on books, websites, newspaper articles, etc. - anything that needs to be written in a different language than the original is translated.

Interpreters deal with the spoken word. Simultaneous interpreters usually work in sound-proof booths. They (and their listeners) can be spotted wearing headphones, and they render the speech in the foreign language as it's being delivered, with only a few seconds' delay. Consecutive interpreters, often equipped with notepads, interpret short segments of speeches or conversations, relaying the speaker's message after, not while, the speaker talks. They sit between conversing parties or next to speakers in large meetings.

So, the rule of thumb is: written words = translator, spoken words = interpreter. (If you're still curious about this topic, you can read more here). Now you've been let in on the big secret, so please feel free to pass this information along to your colleagues and friends.

A Rosy Outlook on Cross Cultural Opportunities

 A rose is a rose is a rose, right? Well, it's not that simple. In the United States, flower colors each carry specific meanings. Most of us wouldn't give a mere friend a dozen red roses, even if red were his or her favorite color, for fear of giving the wrong idea. In some countries, certain flowers (or colors or numbers thereof) are omens of death and are associated only with funerals. Flower buyer, beware!

Tricky as they can be, flowers represent just one of myriad ways in which misunderstandings can arise when people from different cultures meet. Since putting off potential associates is the last thing any of us wants, all organizations with dealings abroad ought to make diligent efforts to learn what potential pitfalls they may encounter and how to avoid them.

The Peace Corps has made two videos on such situations, Cultural Gaffes Beyond Your Borders and Cultural Gaffes at Home and Abroad, which demonstrate a smattering of circumstances in various countries in which a person with even the best of intentions may come across as rude if not aware of the local cultural norms.

Targeted training exists to help organizations prepare for such intercultural encounters, so rather than letting trepidation about accidentally offending people from other countries stop you from achieving your goals, be sure to get the cross-cultural training you need ahead of time. It will be a great investment in your own peace of mind as well as your associates' comfort.

And, when in doubt, you just might want to ask the florist's opinion before buying what you think is the perfect bouquet.

Legal Trouble

You wouldn't leave a four-year old in charge of a newborn infant or ask your elderly grandmother to do some computer programming for you just because they were the most accessible (or inexpensive) candidates available, would you?

Trusting your legal translation work to anyone other than an experienced legal translation professional can be just as dangerous as leaving a young child in charge of a baby.

Francisco Avalos, in a lecture at San Diego State University in 1998, explained the puzzling fact that sometimes "A law firm will be willing to spend thousands of dollars in Federal Expressing documents around the world, but will be reluctant to pay hundreds of dollars for a quality translation." Why dedicate extensive time and effort to ensuring that a legal document says exactly what you mean, only to have it be unclear to your foreign-speaking associates?

Legal translation is especially difficult because systems differ vastly. The U.S. uses a common law system, while most of the countries with which it does business have systems of the civil law variety. Each country's unique system has evolved over the years to meet its needs and represents, as Avalos puts it, "the concentrated expression of the history, culture, social values and the general conscious and perceptions of a people." Since legal translation involves transferring concepts between unrelated systems using technical legal language while accounting for each culture's differences, it's easy to see why a person well-versed in both the source and target countries' systems, cultures and languages is needed to handle this delicate conversion.

Taking certain risks has always been part of running a company. The quality of your legal translations shouldn't be one of them.

A Foggy Lens

Machine translation is becoming ubiquitous. Don't make the mistake, however, of confusing quantity for quality when it comes to these sorts of products. A bigger range of products and systems, unfortunately, does not always translate to better translations.

A recent article in The Economist (Word Lens: not science fiction, but not exactly perfect either, Dec 19, 2010) highlighted a new form of machine translation technology. Rather than requiring the user to type in the words to be translated, the application uses the camera function to read and provide a literal translation of the printed words. Literal translations, as we know, tend to range from awkward to downright confusing. Even in the demo video, the phrases used did not result in idiomatic language. If these short, simple phrases couldn't be translated well, what hope is there for making sense of anything more involved than a "Don't Walk" sign?

Word Lens seems less accurate than many other forms of machine translation in existence, though it does save a few keystrokes. It may be useful for travelers seeking a ballpark idea of what is being said in the written messages around them who are willing to make constant mental linguistic adjustments, such as interpreting "remolque lejos" ("towing far away") to mean the "tow-away" zone. So bring Word Lens on your next vacation - it could provide some rudimentary linguistic enlightenment and/or a few chuckles - but should you ever be tasked with making signs aimed at helping foreigner speakers, don't bother uploading the app as a shortcut. Call a professional translator right away.

People Adopt Terms, Not Computers: The Problem with Online Translators for Modern Topics

The Problem with Online Translators for Modern Topics

Try this on for size. The next time you are on Google Translate, try translating “Green Energy” into any language that you are familiar with. Energia Verde, طاقة خضرا؛ “Taaqah KhDraa”, Зеленая энергия… these all mean literally “Green Energy”, don’t they? The only problem is, we are talking about Clean, Renewable Energy, not green eggs and ham. It may be good for a laugh, but hardly understood by a target audience.

The American English term “spam” has a negative connotation on two levels. It was originally the name for a disgusting potted meat, but now has come to be the common term for junk e-mail. I tried translating the word “spam” on Google Translate, and it gave me the Arabic equivalent of neither. It merely gave me a word that means “annoying”. Should this be the case, the term “Google Translate” could be translated as “annoying” as well. My point is, Terms for technologies is an entirely new dictionary that computer assisted translation has increasing trouble with.

A great example of this is “green energy”. Any native English speaker would know this means “clean” or “renewable” energy. Believe it or not, “green energy” is an idiom. Anyone who regularly has heard this term or used it in everyday speech has actually used the term “green energy” interchangibly with the term “renewable energy” without even realizing it. It is part of the human speech process that makes us human. A computer, thankfully, does not have this same capacity… yet. Google Translate cannot make this jump, either as a term standing alone or in context in a sentence. Translators rely on meanings of words and even entire sentences in order to relay that same meaning into sounds and symbols of a target language. This is the reason that Google Translate and other computer translation like it cannot be guaranteed accurate. It took the word “internet” 20 years for it to be a common term in the US, even though the technology had been a very present part of our society, being used by credit card machines and ATMs for decades prior.

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