Lost in Translation?

Lost in Translation?

“A language is not just words. It’s a culture, a tradition, a unification of a community, a whole history that creates what a community is. It’s all embodied in a language.”

Noam Chomsky


Who has never dreamed about a pill or a wire that would make all the necessary information just be absorbed by the brain? It might easily replace especially time consuming activities, such as learning languages. According to Nicholas Negroponte, an Amercian architect and computer scientist, the founder of MIT media lab at Massachussets Institute of Technology, in 30 years it will become a reality! But is this really such a hurdle in the world, where „everyone” speaks English?

First of all, the language barier, regardless to the availability of numerous translation tools, is still an issue. According to The Guardian in 2015 33% of vacancies in Great Britain were hard-to-fill or remained unfulfilled, due to candidates’ skills and experience shortages. Interestingly, the skills shortages relate also to candidates’ „soft” abilities, which may improve future performance by 30%. So how should business handle this bugbear? „Proliferating” the workforce with necessary skills is just a wishful thinking, and while Negroponte is usually right, 30 years seems a little too long to sit down and wait.

Many companies, including international commercial platforms, invest in intelligent technologies, especially machine translation. The most interesting examples are represented by online retail branch. eBay has recently had to tackle the essential obstacle of limited listings available for users, who changed their language settings. It was extremely important, since over 50% of their revenue comes from international sales.

Namely, the users could only see items posted for sale in the selected language. Alas, it was only possible in one language at a time. eBay has therefore come across with a concept to engage machine learning algorythms to translate all relevant listings automatically, irrespectively to their original posting language. Evgeny Matusov, a Senior Research Manager of eBay, believes that machine translation techniques are significant for users with limited command of English. It enables them to get the access to all online auctions and take full advantage of cross-border marketplace shopping and selling opportunities. Significantly, according to Hassan Sawaf, a Senior Director of Machine Translation at eBay, there are still many countries important from eBay’s business perspective, where only less than 10% of population speaks English. The statistics in other non-English speaking countries, excluding Western Europe and Scandinavia, are comparable.  Imagine: it would take a thousand translators 5 years to translate just 60 million listings aviailable for Russia only, while there are currently over 800 million listings on eBay in total!

What’s in it for Executive Search?

English is believed to have become a contemporary ‘lingua franca’, especially in the world of business. Last year Toyota announced that they would adopt English as the company’s official language by 2020. German household appliance producer – Siemens and a French benefit and reward systems provider – Sodexo did that some time ago. English has been used as the main communication tool in many other companies, including Nokia, Samsung, Nestlé or Honda. Even if not sanctioned by the corporate strategy, a universal English policy can simply pay off in the long run. On the other hand, it does not necessarily resolve possible language gaps in the field of external contacts, especially in the context of export or new market business development. For instance, Goldman Sachs faced this challenge several years ago, striving to appoint a CEO for one of their joint ventures in China.

Many Senior Executives – top managers with intercultural business experience, whom we encounter in the course of our work, share their professional stories. Their English skills are usually highly developed. Those, who had the opportunity to run businesses in Russia, Balkan peninsula, Western and Eastern Europe, Scandinavia, APAC and the Middle East frequently point out that the more eastwards they went, the more essential the cultural nuances, embodied primarily in the local languages, seemed to be. English is obviously indispensable, they claim. So are dictionaries, online translation programs and other softwares of similar use. But those are the details, often barely a basic ability to communicate in a local language, that open the way for successful business partnership.  Yet it takes an effort.

I recall a remarkable situation – a business meeting with the Head of HR of an international clothing company, based in Istanbul. A greeting in Turkish as the opening statement proved to have laid a firm foundation for cooperation, that  followed. This was obviously not the main reason for the cooperation to start, but it surely helped to create a good ‘climate’ for further business endeavors.

Machine translation and similar tools seem to work efficiently, where raw data processing is at stake. When it comes to relational aspects, that needs a human „frosting on the cake”, technology may not be sufficient. It appears, that the nuances, that are frequently crucial to succeed in business, may be very difficult to identify and formulate in a precise way by an algorythm. Machine translation, so much aimed at efficiency, does not necessarily pair up with the „in between the lines” effectivity, so relevant in certain contexts. Cultural sensitivity matters, so far. And can make a change.

The AI revolution continues. Will the machines be able to reproduce not only performance, but also emotions? Is this what we should be yearning for? How will executive-level business benefit from this? The future will bring us the answers.

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