Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Why "They Speak English" is a Crap Excuse

Of all the arguments I’ve heard against professional translation (and I’ve heard a few), “they speak English” has got to be the worst.

I am not a natural salesperson.  I feel funny inside when I think of cold calls.  So when I try to sell a client translation, it’s not because selling is what I do; it’s because I think translation will help them in what they do.  I love the idea of helping a growing business, of working with a company that is going into a country for the first time.  So much is new.  Everything’s exciting, brimming over with possibility as jobs are created and new markets born.

I get especially excited when I see another Kentucky business expand internationally.  I’m proud of my state, but you must admit we’re not known for being the most international people on the face of the planet.  We do wear shoes, but we’re not exactly seen taking them off at airport security as we fly to exotic destinations, either.

What we are known for, though, is hospitality.  As my grandfather put it, Kentucky is “south of the river.”  And while Kentucky’s being southern vs midwestern is cause for debate, when you’re south of the river, we put on that Southern hospitality shine.  Except when it comes to international business.  And there, we are some of the most inhospitable people in the nation.

I made a sales call this morning to what Louisville considers to be a large business.  They’re going international, preparing to open up locations in eight Middle Eastern countries.  It was easy to get the name of the person in charge of this international expansion.  This is a typically Southern company, after all, hospitable in the fact that the polite person (no push-button system here) who answers the phones will say, “Why, sure, sugar, I can put you through to her!”  This restaurant sells itself on Southern kitsch and making you feel comfortable.  But evidently, their highly-marketed hospitality stops at the Atlantic.

In no uncertain terms did the contact tell me that the company has no intent whatsoever to ever purchase translation.  When I asked her why (call me a glutton for punishment), she said, “They speak English over there.”

This has to be the worst argument against professional translation I have ever heard. 

For starters, it’s just lazy.  Instead of judiciously considering communications and how to improve them, let’s just make our foreign partners do the work.  Let’s not actually make any effort to make sure our message is perceived in the way we want it to be; let’s just assume they’re getting all of our highly colloquial, Kentucky-specific references and that nothing is lost in (lack-of-)translation.  It’s not like there’s a professional translation provider six minutes from the office or anything.  It’s not like a simple look at the American Translators Association website would give us access to 11,000 members ready to serve.

This argument also makes you look like a dumbass.  Now, forgive me for cursing in my blog, which I know is an unprofessional move on my part, but there’s no other word for this than “dumbass.”  You don’t have to watch “Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader” to know Arabic is the main language of choice in the Middle East, among others.  If anyone reading can think of a better word than “dumbass” for a college-educated adult who doesn’t know this, I’m happy to hear your suggestion.

But the reason that burns my biscuits most is that it’s completely lacking in Southern hospitality.  I don’t know about y’all, but my momma told me to always accommodate the other person above myself.  When you are a guest in someone’s home, you do as much as you can to put them out as little as you can.  You make your own bed, you help with the dishes, and you don’t eat the last piece of pie.  So why is it so hard for people to transfer this attitude to their companies?  Why is it so hard to realize that going into someone else’s country, asking them for their money, then making them speak your language is so highly rude?  Forget being ruder than eating the last piece of pie, it’s even ruder than I’ve been to this company in my blog entry.

Momma also taught me that honey killed more flies than vinegar and that no one listens when you’re yelling.  So I truly had a hard time deciding to write this blog.  We are good to our clients. We care about them and like to consider ourselves accommodating to all levels of professional language services purchasing experience.  We’ll work with new and first-time buyers when many providers of our caliber won’t.  Again, I love to help a growing company move into new markets, but I grow weary.  I grow tired of this attitude that goes against the grain of everything I’ve been taught, all I know to be logical.  If we cannot be professional, if we cannot be accommodating, then what can we be?


Di Wu said...

I hear you. A friend of mine just told me yesterday that she lost a major client in Germany, whose new management decided that they speak English well enough and don't need professional German to English translation services anymore.

Corrie Barkman said...

So true, Terena Bell! You keep raising the bar...and our awareness level!

Janine Libbey said...

Bravo to In Every Language!

Anonymous said...

Yay, Terena!

Sarah Dillon said...

Great post. Issues that provoke heartfelt frustration can be the most difficult to blog about, but they address the most important issues too. Beautifully done, thank you!

Patricia Lane said...

Well done rant, Terena. I enjoyed every single line of it, Sugar:)

And I feel your pain.

Here in France, I hear the corollary statement often: "We don't need a [professional] translator, we speak English too." One prospect didn't even care his copy promised to donate all product sales **revenue** rather than profits to a good cause, another lauded his ability to manipulate audiences rather than persuade. Most produce copy that would win the Plain English Campaign's Golden Bull Award.

Thanks for the passion and the hospitality. Yes, we care!

Anonymous said...

Yes, this is regrettable. Perhaps "moronic" would be a good word in lieu of "dumbass." But I like your term, as it really is appropriate imho. This is a case of client education if there ever was one. As Americans, we generally tend to think that we are "the best place on earth" and that, of course, everyone else in every other country is just dying to acquire our standard of living, along with all of our cultural attributes. This is not true, however. And we also have a lot to learn from our business partners abroad, as anyone who had traveled outside of the US or lived abroad knows only too well. My two cents.