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CEO Advisory

Lost in Translation and its Dire Consequences

Business Meeting

If it’s your job to interact with businessmen across the border or even design a marketing campaign for a market that speaks a different language, then you know first hand how difficult it is to convey the same concept in a multi-cultural setting. These situations are not uncommon in this day and age when the whole world is one small village and negotiating a deal with a company in Japan is easier than setting up a meeting with a team in the same city.

But while the communication revolution, the internet, and globalization all have made it easier to trade, deal, and have business partnerships with institutions thousands of miles away and open up markets that weren’t possible before, the problem of actually communicating with consumers and businesses from different cultures is still a crucial one. This is not something that auto-translate can resolve. The human element is very much still in demand here. It’s why when world leaders meet behind closed doors they still need that trusty interpreter. Translating and interpreting words on the fly might be easy, but getting the loaded cultural residue that each word carries across to another language is still too complex for computers to handle or get right.

But that doesn’t mean that humans get it right every time. Far from it. Even professionals and language experts who speak more than one language still make mistakes. Even big corporations that spend millions of dollars perfecting the right ad campaign to target a huge market in Asia, Europe, or Latin America, still make costly blunders. That’s because even if you have specialists whose only job is to get the skin color right and the hair shade exactly as what the focus group showed preference to, those experts can still overlook such obvious and glaring errors as socially sensitive issues, offensive racial connotations, and even blatant sexist remarks.

For example, if you’re talking to an Italian and they happen to mention the word ‘pazienza’, you being fluent in Italian will know right away that they mean ‘patience’. Even if your Italian wasn’t up to snuff Google Translate would help you out here. However, if the Italian person you’re discussing a business transaction with happens to be from the southern part of Italy, they might be referring to something more than patience. In southern Italian culture, this word means to hold your innermost feelings in as you wait for the right time. It’s part of the culture there which for long has resisted oppression. It means you plan and wait without showing your true emotions. You stay detached. And when your moment comes you strike with passion and all the bent up feelings inside of you. You strike as only a hot-blooded Italian would do.

Now if you’re not aware of the emotional baggage that the word ‘pazienza’ has in Southern Italy you wouldn’t know what your Italian counterpart was talking about. But not being familiar with the culture of the person you’re negotiating with is one thing, while missing the point be it in a marketing campaign or a political meeting is another. Which is what the following infographic shows us.

Infographic provided by

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CEOWORLD magazine - Latest - CEO Advisory - Lost in Translation and its Dire Consequences
Megan Batchelor
Executive features editor at The CEOWORLD magazine and lover of reality TV. I eat cereal for breakfast, lunch and dinner.