Lost in Translation: Overcoming the Communications Challenges of Non-native English Speakers

In today’s globalized world, being able to publish English content has become a basic requirement for non-English speakers seeking to expand their exposure or advance their career. However, communicating technical material in English when it is not the author’s mother tongue can pose serious challenges. This post takes a closer look at two of those recurring issues and offers resources to help individuals and organizations overcome communication barriers with the help of professional translators and copy editors.

Overcoming Cultural and Linguistic Barriers

The obvious first challenge is when non-native English writers are constrained in their vocabularies and expressions while conveying their ideas or thoughts. Pressured to publish content in English, they become translators of their own work but fail to communicate in a compelling manner due to language barriers.

The recurring use of “false friends” by non-native writers—when two words that look or sound similar differ significantly in meaning—illustrates this challenge. For instance, “to control” in English usually means “to exercise authority” but “controller” in French means “to verify.” Another example that could lead to miscommunication is the translation of the English verb “to dispose of,” meaning “to throw away” by “disposer de” in French, which means “to own.”

Understanding the Translation of Concepts

While assessing one’s own level of language fluency can be done easily through proofreading and peer review, the translation of concepts poses a different kind of challenge. Paraphrasing or literal translation as a way to adapt concepts into English or any other target language can distort the original idea. This is particularly the case in social sciences, where “concepts tend to take the form of technical terms, which in turn tend to be culture specific.”[1] This specificity requires that social science translators are both good linguists and experts of the “language” of the discipline or organization they are dealing with (its jargon, its givens, its historical background).

The difficulty in identifying the right translator needed or budget limits may encourage writers to produce content in a second language they have not fully mastered. Below are a few tips on the use of language services to overcome this issue.

Selecting the Right Translator and Copy Editor

The use of copy editing or translation services appears to be an easy solution, but hiring the right professional can be a difficult task.

For readers interested in the selection of translators for social science material, the Guidelines for the Translation of Social Science Texts published by the American Council of Learned Societies, provides useful recommendations when considering the translation of a book or other major projects where the interest of the author and translators are aligned.

For shorter material, authors are looking to get the highest quality possible under tight deadlines, and the use of a translation agency that relies on a collaboration between language professionals with specialized knowledge in the subject matter and related disciplines can provide an attractive option.

While budget considerations are often a deciding factor, looking at translation and editing services as an investment rather than a cost is an important point to ensure that those services are used to support the communication strategy of the organization in English and other languages.

Participating in an International Event? Partner with us for specialized translations!

Whether your organization is attending an international event or hosting one, knowledge of technical terms is critical to communicate your message. While glossaries such as the ones listed below can assist with producing communication material, our team of language professionals can ensure the accuracy and quality of your message with specialized translation and copy editing services by experts in your field.

Contact us or request a quote today, to make your documents ready for a global audience.

We speak your language!

Check out these international events and learn more about related technical terms:

The Nuclear Security Summit in (Washington, DC, March 31–April 1) – glossary
IMF Spring Meetings 2016 (Washington, DC, April 12 – 17) glossary
Earth Day on the National Mall (Washington, DC, April 22, 2016) – glossary 
World Humanitarian Summit (Istanbul, May 23–24) – glossary
COP 22 November (Marrakech, Morocco) 7-18, 2016 – glossary
21st International AIDS Conference (Durban South Africa) glossary


Buying Translation: Why Comparing Prices Is Not Enough

If you have looked for translation services recently, you have probably contacted a few different language services providers and chosen the one who seemed to offer the best value for the price. Odds are you were working under a strict deadline and did not have much time to do more than compare quotes which consisted of per-word, -page or -hour rates with an estimated time of delivery.

While this information is important, a lot more goes into evaluating the cost of a translation project and there is a strong probability you are comparing extremely different services while strictly looking at the price. Here is an overview of what you can expect from translation agencies (individual translators fall under a different category) and how to ensure you get the best value for your next project without taking a gamble on the quality of the final product.

Is Your Translator Human?

This question may seem strange but in the age of advanced automated translation software, knowing if the paper you spent weeks working on is going to be put through a machine or translated by an expert is a legitimate concern. As a general rule, a professional translator is expected to translate between 1500 and 2000 words per day, depending on the complexity of the original and the experience of the linguist. A quote suggesting your document will be translated at a significantly higher pace might be an indication that your provider is using machine translation with post-editing. However, it is worth noting that automated translation might be a good solution if you need the translated document for internal purposes only or if you are working under extremely tight deadlines and have the ability to get your document reviewed by a native speaker from your staff. On the other hand, if you have gotten the confirmation that your translator is indeed human, going one step further and asking for his qualifications is also a good way to check if you will be working with professional linguists, bilingual staff, or even non-native speakers in the worst-case scenario.

A la Carte versus All–Inclusive Services

The spread of open access translation tools like Google Translate has contributed to the impression that the translation of a document is a simple, one-step process consisting of transforming the original into its translated copy. While this might be true for simple, everyday content, specialized material that requires a significant amount of time and research to produce also requires a lot of work to be translated. The preparation of a glossary of terms, the translation, editing, and proofreading, and the insertion of comments and edits into the translated version are all necessary steps in a high-quality translation process, and it is worth checking with your provider to verify whether those options are all included in the translation estimate or if they will incur additional fees upon request. Choosing only translation without independent editing might save you money in the short run, but could end up costing you way more down the road if you need to find a reviewer yourself or end up with poor-quality work.

Finding a Project Manager Who Speaks Your Language

If you have worked with freelance translators in the past and were the one who was overseeing the completion of the project, you understand the importance of the role of the project manager. This person not only oversees the preparation, planning, and proofreading of the translation, but also acts as an interface between the client and the translation team. When working with a language services provider under a short deadline, you need to look for a partner who is able to act as a true member of your team in order to ensure the translation of your document reads like an original to the target readership and all your questions can be answered by someone who understands your field. Looking for a partner who understands the mission of your institution and the final purpose of the translation is an approach that will prove to be much more effective than strictly basing the selection of your translation agency on the profile of the linguists and the price estimate. Oftentimes, project managers who have acquired significant experience in one particular field are able to raise questions that can add value to the communication of your message, thus providing you with far more than a translated document.

In sum, while budget considerations always play an important part in selecting any business services, the nature of the translation industry does not allow for a fair comparison between language service providers when strictly looking at rates. Understanding how your project is done and building a relationship with your project manager is a good start in helping you make an educated choice and avoiding negative surprises down the road.