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.