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Ahh ... the pitfalls of international communication.

Nobody said communicating was easy. Or if anyone did, he or she probably never attempted to communicate.across geopolitical, cultural and linguistic boundaries.

All too frequently, communicating information internationally produces messages that range from confusing or incomprehensible to ridiculous or insulting. And for reasons best left in Freudian textbooks, those inept efforts communicators seem to remember most tend to deal with the scatological or anatomical.

In a recent mini-survey of two dozen international communicators, some startling stories surfaced, including some perhaps that are apocryphal. Jim Pritchitt of Australia, for example, recalls an American executive breaking up a gathering of Aussies by saying, "I'd be thrown out on my fanny." Down Under and in and other English-speaking countries, since "fanny" is a different, female, part of the anatomy, this presents gender and gymnastic difficulties.

Sigrid Tidmore, ABC, of the U.S., recalls a flyer produced for the secretary of commerce in Mexico where the tilde (accent) was dropped from ano (year) and became ano (anus) - a reference best left behind. And Mexico's Roberto Sanchez Mejorada, ABC, tells of being in Caracas, Venezuela, where he and his wife Maria gave a seminar on natural family planning to 300 medical doctors. On the third day, a physician told Maria that she repeatedly had said "no se hagan bolas" - a popular Mexican expression meaning "don't get mixed up." Unfortunately, in Venezuela, "bolas" (balls) is used as slang, as it is in English.

Australian Doug Rose still shudders over a government information program gone wrong in Papua, New Guinea, in 1975. Rose was handling public relations for the fledgling government where he says there are more than 700 different languages spoken, but three principal ones: Tok Pisin (Pidgin English), Hiri Motu (a bastardized version of Pure Motu, a major southern coastal language) and English. The Office of Information published materials in all three. With Rose and two translators, the three main languages were covered, but not Pure Motu.

As part of an education campaign aimed at thousands of village elders exhorting them to civic consciousness on health and aesthetic grounds, a leaflet was produced soon, Rose says, "to become the most famous government document of the year." The cover featured a drawing of a tidy bamboo village. The English edition said, "Keep your village clean!" So did the Tok Pisin and Hiri Motu versions, "except that the Hiri version, which immediately came to the notice of that quarter of the nation's Parliamentarians who spoke Pure Motu, stated precisely, 'There's s- -all over my s- -house's walls.'" This infamous pamphlet provided a lesson in the pitfalls of cross-cultural communication in a multicultural community. It also led to the creation of a national translation service.

Mistranslations may be bizarre rather than shocking. Jim Pritchitt has a friend, Peter Bostok, who was working in Asia in the 1970s for an Australian company that had just entered the then-new container shipping industry. Bostok was asked to help start operations in Singapore and Hong Kong where containers were pretty much unknown. After the firm registered its name in Chinese, Bostok thought it would be worthwhile to get the Chinese translated back into English. Because there was no Chinese equivalent for "container," the translation from the "Australian Overseas Container Company" to "The Overseas Coffin Box Manufacturers" was dead wrong.

The U.K.'s John Ford, ABC, describes a sign he spotted above the counter in a Copenhagen airline ticketing office: "We take your bags and send them in all directions," instead of the intended "we can take your bags and send them wherever you want to go." He also cites a newsletter published by American Express in Brussels in 1993 telling business travel clients, "TWA has recently removed seats on all its aircraft to provide more legroom." Ford says, "Now that's what I call legroom!" The crew probably got a standing ovation.

Ben Milano, of the Philippines, while working in Rome came across a bulletin board in a government office with interesting excerpts from expatriates, including these two: "Milk is wanted for my baby as the father is unable to supply it" and "Re: your inquiries. The teeth in the top are all right, but the ones in my bottom are hurting terribly." Ben notes that failure to translate often results when we think in our native tongue and then try to express ourselves in another language.

Still another tale of unfortunate translation is offered by Pixie Malherbe, ABC, South Africa. While working for an electric utility a few years ago, she developed a series of posters presenting the concept of "team power" (in Afrikaans, "span krag") and wanted to extend it to Zulu and Sotho. A piece she wrote about "mammoth power stations" was translated by a colleague, printed and distributed. Some time later a senior manager asked her why she had said the "power stations are dead." It seems the translator, unfamiliar with "mammoth," had found in the dictionary "large extinct animal" and had used that interpretation.

Another time, doing a company TV program in four languages, Pixie found that the script read "men like to relax and have a drink after work." This was translated to mean that the men in the company were drunkards who all drank after work. This understandably caused a lot of unhappiness and even may have driven the communicators to drink.

Dick Charlton, ABC, U.S., tells of being in Paris to prepare a cassette-slide corporate history for French employees of a company in which his organization was acquiring a 40 percent interest. It was to be a pep talk in English, but immediately followed by a French translation. Although a "premier translator" put the text in French beforehand, Dick's instincts told him to have the French public relations director read it.

"The director grouchily plodded through the multipage script," Charlton says, "until - near the end of the history where I had proudly proclaimed that our company 'helps to meet man's basic needs around the world,' he suddenly convulsed. The translator," Charlton notes, "had translated the text to read that our company 'gives an enema to mankind around the world.'" Happily, Charlton adds, "Murphy was defeated once more."

Sometimes even when a word is used correctly, one's cultural context may render it inappropriate. John Ford remembers a series of clever ads for an American bank in Europe. Each had a key word highlighted at the head of the page: "pulse," "drive" and "grasp."

In the U.S. the word "grasp" had a certain shock value and made people read the remainder of the copy. But in Europe the effect was exactly the opposite, confirming what those who previewed the ad had always believed about American banks . . . that they were grasping. The ad was never used outside North America.

Australia's Gerry Mulholland remembers, "I once promoted snag-and-ladderproof women's hosiery internationally, forgetting to check in which countries women wore stockings. Fortunately," he sighs, "enthusiasm from women in countries where they did easily compensated for my embarrassment!"

If English is tough, what about the Scandinavian languages? Per Arne Totland, Norway, relates an episode from a Scandinavian chemicals company management meeting. "Cultures are fairly close," he says, "and the Norwegians and Danes, and even the Swedes, easily understand each others' languages. You might overlook the cultural differences, but they are there."

The Danes have an expression when they are excited and want to underline something: "Hold nu keft, mand!" Literally translated this means, "Shut up, man!" However, Totland says, this is not what they want to say, it's just an expression. The company's Norwegian CEO, obviously unfamiliar with the Danish phrase, became more and more angry with the Dane who, during the meeting, kept telling him to shut up. "Luckily," Totland reports, "someone whispered in the CEO's ear before he fired the poor Dane."

Anne Forrest, Hong Kong, cringes over the fact that Americans insist on calling China "Red China" (not the politically correct name) or "The Republic of China," which, she notes, "is the name Taiwan calls itself, to the chagrin of The People's Republic of China (PRC)." Given the current tensions between the countries, miscommunication could lead to more than an amusing story.

Beyond words are symbols, icons and pictures - also vulnerable to misinterpretation. Milner Erlank, South Africa, passes on a story he heard years ago when he worked in northern Rhodesia (now Zambia). An international meat canner with a large share of the Belgian Congo (now Zaire) consumer market offered its product in a tin with a bull's head emblem. "The company was so impressed with sales," Erlank says, "that it decided to identify the brand more closely with the local market and swapped the bull's head for a jolly smiling visage below the brand name. When sales plummeted, the company found that consumers read into the smiling face that they were eating the meat of their brothers and sisters."

What's an international communicator to do? Communication is not just the process of passing information from A to B. It occurs when B receives and understands A's message. So if A says, "You're a prince," and B mistakenly hears, "You're a fool," has communication taken place? This is communication of a sort but certainly not what the sender had in mind.

In our catalog of communication gaffes we've looked only at a few that have been noticed and documented. How many thousands of other messages transmitted internationally have been ignored because they were indecipherable - or worse, caused problems because they were offensive?

This brings us full circle. Communicating internationally is not easy. But before you risk provoking unintended anger in Adelaide, confusion in Caracas or laughter in London, at least consider these tips suggested by our IABC associates from around the world:

* Avoid using your own slang across borders and don't use another country's colloquialisms unless checked out by someone in that country.

* Remember that things such as currencies, house values, power references, building specifications, weights and measures need to be translated into their equivalents.

* Minimize mistakes by always asking nationals of a country who are living there to check the translation, because of their experience and familiarity with the local scene.

* When translating a message into another language, using words that create pictures to get inside the minds of audiences may be more effective than a literal word-for-word transcription.

* Always adjust the message for the variety of cultures and customs involved. Public holidays and national occasions in various countries, for example, seldom match.

* What is simply written in one language may become convoluted in another. Again, get a national to run a "fog index" on the copy.

Gerry Mulholland offers the best tip of all: "When we communicate internationally, we should think more about getting, and paying for, the help and cooperation of our professional colleagues in other countries."

RELATED ARTICLE: Linguistic Challenges in South Africa

Longtime IABC member Milner Erlank, director, Manuscript Communication Consultants, Johannesburg, South Africa, eloquently describes the linguistic challenges facing anyone attempting to communicate in today's new South Africa:

What is relevant in South Africa at this time, for home-grown firms, as well as multinationals entering this market, is the fact that under the constitution, all 11 languages have parity. Our new coins, for example, will have legends in all official languages. This status also is affecting the use of the airwaves. The old South African Broadcasting Company (SABC) TV gives way to three channels in which Afrikaans is relegated from the equal of English to just one official language with a diminution in air time (with a big row running over this decision).

Since February 4, the viewer has had to dance around three channels to track programmes with the language of his or her choice. English will be the common lingua franca (it certainly is in politics and business) and may eventually emerge as the dominant communication language through education, although again education makes it possible for some areas and provinces to conduct lessons in a mother tongue.

A further communication fragmentation is the way our Independent Broadcasting Authority, which controls the airwaves, is granting licenses for community radio stations that can offer fare in the language(s) of their choice. At this time, people are not as dogmatic as were the Afrikaans speakers in the old days who very often demanded that responses be in Afrikaans when they opened dialogue in that language.

Nevertheless, given the level of illiteracy, firms wishing to establish contact with the majority of the population whose incomes can only rise from an incredibly low base may well have to consider resorting to more than English to gain consumer acceptance. This will be over and above the healthy trend of many advertisers who promote products on TV and radio in vernacular tongues.

This multilingualism means, too, that many urban Blacks have a huge advantage over White communicators since they can switch with ease to English, Afrikaans, Zulu, Xhosa, Sotho, Venda or whichever because of their cultural and lifestyle exposure to so many tongues from an early age. This was probably encouraged by the illiteracy factor. They are, therefore, much more adept at languages than White communicators who have held the centre stage for so long and are usually only conversant in English and Afrikaans.

Overall, international firms would be looking to reach audiences comprising the established "First World" market, mostly affluent Whites, business, investors and governments, so that they can be comfortable with English as the do-all language. However, even if Afrikaans is downgraded in status, it will not be so in usage. It would be a foolish marketer who ignored the use of the language if they wished to reach a very large consumer market.

Likewise, there may be times when serious consideration will have to be given, for example, to communicating with the Zulu market, numerically the largest ethnic bloc, in Zulu. It all poses interesting possibilities - and challenges.

Editor's Note: This is the first of two articles. The second will look at attitudes, behavior, body language, management style and other cultural aspects of communication.

International communicators who contributed to this story include:

Australia: Gerry Mulholland, Jim Pritchitt, Doug Rose

Hong Kong: Anne Forrest

Mexico: Roberto Sanchez Mejorada, ABC

Norway: Per Arne Totland

Philippines: Ben Milano

South Africa: Milner Erlank, Pixie Malherbe, ABC

United Kingdom: John Ford, ABC, Ian Hawkins, ABC

United States: Dick Charlton, ABC, Sigrid Tidmore, ABC

Norm Leaper, ABC, is president of The Leaper Company, a San Francisco-based communication consultancy.
COPYRIGHT 1996 International Association of Business Communicators
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1996, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:includes related article on linguistic challenges in South Africa
Author:Leaper, Norm
Publication:Communication World
Date:Jun 1, 1996
Previous Article:Intranets: what's all the excitement?
Next Article:Tales from the other side.

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