By Ewandro Magalhaes
The cost of poor communication
In early 2014, companies catering to an increasingly international client base rushed to have their websites localized in as many languages as possible. They did so under the spell of a report from a US-based independent research firm specializing in global business.
Through surveys of over 3,000 consumers in non-English speaking countries in Asia, Europe, and South America, Common Sense Advisory had established that over half (54.2%) of the people in these regions would only buy from websites where information is provided in their native language. The demand for localized content increases to over 60% in specific countries, such as France.
Results are even more telling when one compares the purchasing habits of consumers from different countries. Take Japanese and Spanish shoppers, for instance. The former are four times less likely than the latter to buy from English-only websites. The report title encapsulates it neatly: Can’t Read, Won’t Buy.
Curiously enough, the resistance to buying from English-centric sources had no direct correlation with one’s command of English as a foreign language. This means that regardless of how well they understand or get by in English, consumers still prefer to be addressed in their mother tongues.
Fast forward five years, and that rationale has now extended beyond the written word. More and more meetings are being held on the cloud and businesses are expanding further into Southeast Asia or Africa. It is time to ask ourselves: are people easily dissuaded from buying or from entering into a deal if they are constantly spoken to in a language other than their own? Are companies leaving money on the table by insisting on meeting only in English or German or French?
Logic and Emotion
Science (or plain common sense, at least) seems to indicate that this is so. In his book Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain (Damasio, 2005), neurologist Antonio Damasio sustains that people make logical decisions for emotional reasons. And nothing elicits emotion faster than language —particularly one’s own. As Nelson Mandela famously noted: “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his mind. If you talk to him in his own language, that goes to his heart.” Conversely, there is no faster path to frustration than being unable to express ourselves thoroughly in a language we don’t totally master. To use another quote, this time by an anonymous source, “when we speak a foreign language we say only what we can.”
“We tend to believe that English will get us through anything. But…”
Professional language mediation (i.e., professional translation and interpretation) can arguably be traced back to those emotional and logical roots. Anger leads to poor business decisions. Inaccuracy usually results in losses. Yet most companies still insist on English-only conferences despite their international reach. Shouldn’t they be localizing their meetings just as they have their websites?
These observations, as somber as they sound, reveal an opportunity for the interpreting community — if we can put a price tag on miscommunications in global business while demonstrating the cost-effectiveness of professional translation and interpretation services. The message is simple: misspeak and you may overpay.
However, until we are able to measure and quantify the financial losses that stem from single-language interactions, and how these losses can be mitigated or avoided by using trained, professional translators and interpreters, people will continue to hurt. And that includes us, linguists.
We tend to believe that English will get us through anything. But anyone who has ever been to Thailand or Vietnam knows how difficult it is to navigate the large metropolitan areas of those countries (or take a cab anywhere) without speaking at least some rudimentary Thai or Vietnamese. Now imagine what it takes to close a deal involving hefty sums of money.
Honestly, imagining doesn’t cut it anymore. It is about time that we assessed the cost of poor business decisions, including the decision not to engage professional interpreters, and the volume of business that goes unrealized because consumers face a language barrier.
The time for guesswork is long past. New, quantitative, data-driven analyses are needed. A new report must be commissioned. I may not be the one to write it, but I can suggest a title: “No sense, no deal.”
Damasio, A. (2005). Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason and the Human Brain. London: Penguin Books.
Editor’s note: As Ewandro Magalhaes states in his article, new studies and data-driven analyses are needed on the cost of failure to provide language access in the world of commerce. There are, however, numerous studies available on the impact of language access in healthcare. See http://www.ata-divisions.org/ID/osti-case-trained-interpreters-2015/ for additional information.
Ewandro Magalhaes is the former Chief Interpreter of a United Nations agency in Geneva. He is also the author of Sua Majestade, o Intérprete; a public speaker whose TED Lessons have been viewed over a million times; and a mentor and career coach for interpreters.
Currently, Ewandro is the VP of Marketing & Communications at KUDO, a cloud-based interpretation-delivery platform. He holds a Master’s Degree in Conference Interpretation from the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey (MIIS). In addition to his native Portuguese, his working languages are English, Spanish and French. He may be reached through his website: www.ewandro.com.
Image by Alexandre Godreau on Unsplash