99% of businesses in the UK are SMEs, yet only 20% of them are exporters. The 1/5 share of exporters may not seem like a lot, compared with 80% of British companies which do not export, yet it’s still a significant number, considering that they would potentially need to overcome language and cultural barriers.
The language and translation work in SMEs was the subject of a conference held in Newcastle this month, a four stage project funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council and led by Professor Susanne Tietze from Sheffield Hallam University. Dr Natalie Willmot did thorough research into the language barriers in inter-organisational relationships and shared interesting insights into her case studies.
Some of those findings echoed my own experience of working with SMEs as a translation and interpreting practitioner specialising in Russian. Companies have several options of tackling their language requirements. If the translation demands are great, then one way of dealing with it would be to employ a full-time translator. With sporadic language needs presenting themselves on an ad hoc basis, businesses have an option of using independent language specialists. Increasingly, however, exporters go along a third route and employ staff with foreign language skills. These employees may have no translation experience whatsoever and translation work may not be part of their job description at all, however, they would be expected from time to time to help out with communication problems since they speak the language. In certain situations this causes difficulties for both employees and employers and I gave specific examples in my presentation.
Amongst quite a few revelations shared by another speaker, Dr Alexandra Albuquerque of Polytechnic of Porto, one issue specifically calls for action to us as consumers. From Dr Albuquerque’s practical research, it transpired that companies she spoke to in Portugal are reluctant to invest much in professional translations since there is no consumer demand for it: translated product manuals may not be flawless and on occasions may sound funny, but the consumer keeps buying the products so there is no need to spend more on better translations. As far as they are concerned, the legal requirement has been fulfilled, translation supplied, job done. I know I complained to companies about bad translations I came across before, but not always, and perhaps I did it because I am a translator and could read more than one language. The bottom line is where there is no consumer pressure, companies don’t feel compelled to invest.
Whether the language is a common good or a competitive advantage, it’s there to assist on a corporate or higher ranking level: “Doing a deal is not about signing contracts, it’s about knowing and trusting people.”
A copy of my presentation given on 23rd February 2018 at Newcastle University can be viewed here.
Yelena McCafferty: Working with Languages: Challenges and Solutions
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