“I’m totally f—ed,” my generally polite father announced as he entered the room, open book in hand.
“What!?” we screamed, taken aback.
“I’m f—ed,” he repeated. “That means I’ve made a mistake, right?”
I should clarify—he said this in Portuguese, and the book in hand was a Portuguese/English phrase book. And, yes, he did make a mistake…while his choice of words indeed are something one might exclaim when making a mistake, they are generally not the ones you would use in a social setting, meeting your Brazilian son-in-law’s extended family for the first time. And, while absolutely delighted with my dad’s interest in communicating across a language barrier, we nevertheless advised: “Give us the book. We’ll cross out anything you shouldn’t say out loud.
So what to do as a novice or non-native speaker, when you have to/want to do anything from break the ice to conduct business across a language barrier? Here are four tools to consider: Phrase books; Google Translate; Volunteer Native Speakers; and Professional Translation Services.
Phrase books are great for on the ground, in-country, or even to study on the plane on the way there. For casual communication (or even to establish rapport at the opening of a meeting, before deferring to the experts for business communication) it’s amazing how far the words “please,” “thank you,” “water” and “soba” (bonus—same word in English) can get you in Japan, for example. Plus, you can show the book to the shop owner or restaurateur to avoid your awful pronunciation, for things like “where’s the bathroom” or directions to the nearest hotel. Watch the hands for an idea of direction, and then ask again when you get closer. (And, be sure the phrase book is from a reputable source, a la the hilarious Monty Python Dirty Hungarian Phrase Book.)
Of course, steady, reliable access to the Intent is critical, and I can only speak to languages that are written in the Roman alphabet.
But, I really heartily only recommend you use Google Translate when you already have familiarity with the language…enough to know when there are egregious mistakes. Or, at least open with a caveat: “I’m trying to tell you I loved your cooking…sorry if there are mistakes.”
And, I would only use Google Translate in a casual social setting—the opportunity for error or miss in subtle nuances is big. But, have great fun with it in cross-cultural relationships, friendships or to follow what other people are saying. And if you are translating from a native language to English, also allow for a little latitude in the result.
Of course it also may be good to “fess up” to your secret early if you have been exchanging notes in another language on Facebook, so you are not facing a pending trip to family out of the country, who now think you are amazingly fluent in their language…
Volunteer Native Speaker Translators
How about translation for print materials or web content? Having worked for a many a non-profit or school, there has often been an offer of “Maria in accounting is from Mexico and has volunteered to translate this for free!” Yay and thanks to Maria—it’s a huge savings.
But, ‘buyer beware.’ Is the Spanish speaking audience you are targeting from Mexico? There can be wide differences in phrases and word choices from Mexico to Puerto Rico to Spain (think US vs British English—the words may be comparable, but will the tone and colloquialisms match your audience?).
And, Maria is a fabulous accountant, but she may be an awful writer. So, you may save cash at the outset with a volunteer translator, and there are cases where this is a great solution, but just have a conversation up front about concerns. Or offer to host a “trial focus group” of two or three native speakers from your target audience to read the material before posting/printing…e.g. free coffee or $10 gift certificate to the book store for reviewing new material.
Professional Translation Services
For professional business, if your needs are ongoing, you may hire someone who is an expert writer, marketer, etc. in the target language/culture. But otherwise, there is no way around using an expert translation service. Most charge by the word, and if you do not speak the language into which you are translating, you may still want to arrange for some of your target audience to read it—perhaps checks and balances when you are accountable and have no idea what it says. And a final note for professional or marketing pieces, do not forget images, colors and all of the other things where culture can influence appeal.
In summary, when there is no room for errors, even when they are cute and funny, hire a professional–whether that’s for translation, marketing or other professional services. But otherwise, get out of your comfort zone, expand your horizons, make new friends and have some fun.