Is English Good Enough?
It pays to ask: When is translation necessary, and when can English be relied upon to do the job?
The stakes are high for medical-device or pharmaceutical companies trying to determine whether translations are necessary. Even small to mid-size companies may spend a significant amount of time and many thousands of dollars on translation.
True, there has been significant international regulation like Europe's medical device directives that require local-language labeling. Further, many consumer-level documents need to be translated to stay competitive in local markets. (Imagine if a German company like Bayer offered Americans its sales brochures only in German.)
But there has been a counterforce at work in globalization: English first, we might call it. As the world gets smaller, both businesses and consumers increasingly look for a lingua franca to help get over the complexities of translation and localization, and most people find that common language to be English. The Internet has further accelerated the move toward English as a common language, since the majority of commercial Web sites are in English. English also has the advantage of a character set that every computer supports. In addition, it is established in the curricula in most countries around the world.
Consider these current events that display the dominant role of English in world business today:
- French industrial giant Alcatel uses English as its official internal language.
- The latest edition of the United Nations blue book lists the language in which each diplomatic mission prefers to receive correspondence. French, until now, had been the language of choice. But the current survey says that English is now preferred by most diplomatic missions.
- According to a European Union (EU) survey, 70% of respondents think that "everyone should speak English."
- A more lighthearted, but significant, example of the pervasiveness of English around the world: seven-year-old students in the Swiss town of Halwil sing "Old MacDonald" and learn the multiplication tables in English, the New York Times reported recently.
Many documents do require local-language translation for either a regulatory or a practical reason (e.g., labeling for consumer products). But even among these must-translate documents are potential areas of cost and time savings. For example, a quick-start guide and user's manual may need translation, while an administrator guide may be left in English. Some companies have developed simplified versions of English with limited vocabulary and simplified sentence structure. They produce documents, such as service manuals, in this simplified English, often with ample pictures and diagrams. The cost and time savings have been enormous in some cases.
When determining whether English alone will do, don't make any assumptions about your audience, either within your company or among its customers or consumers. Circulating an on-line survey that asks your constituents in foreign countries for their preference can be effective. The survey should ask where translation is absolutely necessary, broken down by the typical types of documents or contexts (e.g., marketing materials and manufacturing specs).
One trend I've observed is that, with increasing fluency in English, many people prefer the use of English—particularly if it's simple and clear—to a mediocre or poor translation.
A scene all too common to translation professionals illustrates the point. A group of doctors, for example, visit Chicago from Korea. A translation company has provided simultaneous interpreters, using the latest in infrared technology to patch the Korean translation into the headsets of the visitors. But since the presentations are highly technical and use many untranslatable words like B2B and time to market, and the translations are of poor quality, the visitors lay their headsets on the table and make do with their English.
A clear simplified-English translation may in some cases be the only one you need. A company that discovers such cases will also discover significant cost savings—an idea that is attractive in any language.
Robert Sprung is the president of Harvard Translations (Boston, MA). His latest book, Translating Into Success, includes case studies in multilingual labeling and is available on amazon.com. To contact him, send an e-mail to email@example.com or visit http://www.htrans.com.