Language for Profit

More firms Turn To Translation Experts To Avoid Costly, Embarrassing Mistakes

from an article in the Wall Street Journal, Jan. 13, 1977

General Motors was puzzled by the lack of enthusiasm the introduction of its Chevrolet Nova automobile aroused among its Puerto Rican dealers. The reason, it turned out, was simple: Nova means star in Spanish, but when spoken it sounds like “no va”, which means “it doesn’t go.” The company quickly changed the car’s name to “Caribe” and it sold nicely..

Similarly, Parker Pen Company once blitzed Latin America with a campaign that inadvertently maintained that a new ink would help prevent unwanted pregnancies.

These aren’t the only companies to learn the closer relationship between phraseology and profitability. With foreign trade growing increasingly significant to firms, foreign language—especially complex, legal, technical, and financial terminology–also comes more into play. In addition, companies are realizing the importance of linguistic nuance in directing advertising toward non-English-speaking Americans, as well as foreigners.

Translation of Whole Volumes

The result has been an explosion in demand for business and technical translation, a complex task whose practitioners range from individual freelancers to some sizable specialist firms. A few of the larger services in New York and in California report sevenfold to tenfold increases in their business over the past six years.

Heavy spending on development by Middle Eastern countries and detente with the Soviets have stimulated much of the growth. Control Data Corp., for instance, needed little or no Russian translation five years ago because it didn’t sell computers there. Now it has made big sales to the Russians, has more pending and is a major customer of a large translation agency. “Now we require translation of whole volumes of text, and this is just the beginning of our growth,” a Control Data official says.

Another reason for the sharp increase in the importance of translation: Errors can sometimes be tragic. At one construction site in the Middle East, a worker was killed when a load of cement fell on him from a cement mixer. The accident was attributed to the translated operating manual for the mixer, which mistakenly said a lever should be pulled right, rather than left, according to the files of one translation service. Bad translations have also been blamed for structure collapses at two construction sites in the Middle East, the translation firm says.

Fortunately, most goofs are simply embarrassing failures to consider meanings or word nuances in a foreign tongue. For example, Otis Engineering Co. once raised Russian eyebrows with a poster at a Moscow trade show promising that its oil well completion equipment was just dandy for improving a person’s sex life. Similarly, a Venezuelan ad for a U.S.-made auto battery once slipped on a literal translation: It came out describing the battery as “highly overrated.”

Watching Illustrations

Even illustrations have to be watched; a picture that offends cultural or national sensibilities can mar otherwise accurate translations. McDonnell Douglas Corporation, for example, produced an aircraft brochure for potential customers in India depicting some turbaned men. “It was politely pointed out to us that the turbans were distinctly Pakistani Moslem,” a company spokesman says. The artist had copied the picture from an old National Geographic magazine.

The best defense against error, everyone seems to agree, is a translator who knows the current idiomatic use of the language, knows the culture of the country, has an intuitive knack for recreating American concepts in a foreign tongue, and understands the technical area in which he is working. This latter point is particularly important since translators may also find it necessary to coin new words to describe highly technical matters in a language with no equivalent term. “Electronic pulse” in Farsi, for example, translates as broken wave”.

The cost of a major translation job can be stiff. One of the larger agencies charged Hughes Aircraft Co. $375,000 to translate nearly two million words of specifications for French, German and English weapons into the languages of those countries. More typical jobs, such as a major sales presentation or a lengthy technical report, might cost a company $25,000 to $40,000 at the larger translation firms. And business is booming.