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Forget French to English, try translating technical issues to English.

Technical language, like any spoken language, contains certain nuances that easily can be lost in translation.

If there is one thing the recent technology revolution has illustrated, it is the language divide between the technically abled and the rest of us.

This doesn't mean language in the traditional sense of spoken language, rather it is how any particular language is used by a technically proficient audience versus how the same language is used by a more mainstream audience. For instance, American telecom engineers may speak English, but the average English speaker may still not know what they are saying (quick, define wave division multiplexing...see!).

This type of language divide, where some talk techno-speak while the rest of us still cannot find the "on" button, takes place "within" any given language, and it makes the challenge of taking a complex issue and translating it for a general and expert public simultaneously a precarious balancing act for communicators.

Why? Because technical language, like any spoken language, contains certain nuances that easily can be lost in translation. So while the general public may hear the desired translated message, the tech-enabled may hear an unintended message as they translate it back into techno-speak. For them, it is similar to translating a joke from English to Chinese and back to English again...not so funny now, is it? Or, at least not as funny as was intended.

This is not a new problem. From drug companies to financial institutions, the challenge of getting the core message to the public without it being muddled by the complexity of the entire technical issue is faced by all communicators.

But the age of information technology has exacerbated the problem by presenting both new technologies and new technology-related issues that affect everyone. Thus, the public must now absorb messages related to such issues as privacy or security, while also hearing about the new technologies related to these issues. For example, the public is now hearing about computer security, virtual money and privacy, while still trying to figure out what electronic commerce is all about (incidentally, they are all directly related).

The result? Fear, hesitation, confusion and a reluctance to talk about the issues. And, that's only describing the communicators.

So, what can communicators do to ensure a clear message can be fashioned from a complex issue? Is there a process to ensure the target audience(s) will know what the message is, and listen? No and yes.

No, because there is no one way to translate complex messages for both general public and expert public consumption. Yes, because there are rules and ideas one can follow to help form a process for translating a particularly complex issue.

Who Is Your Target Audience?

Like any message, complex issue messages often have multiple targets. The audience can be the general public and/or a technically expert public and/or a political public, among other mixtures. For example, Microsoft is often targeting both consumers and developers with similar messages about the same product.

Some of the more general target categories are the general public, the general media, the technology savvy public, and the technology savvy media.

Whoever the target audience, other audiences could receive the message and may or may not hear it as intended. So, even if only an expert audience is the sole target, the communicator must consider the possibility of the general public hearing the message (perhaps through the media), and if so, will they get the right message, wrong message, or just technical gobbledygook?

Dealing with Different Audiences

Dealing with different target audiences at one time presents a common problem: When a complex issue is translated for two or more audiences, it can still mean two different things to two different audiences.

One way to deal-with diverse audiences is to skip general communication and deal with specific audiences differently, letting each audience know which message is intended for them.

Microsoft rarely tries hard to explain the technical benefits of a new product to new consumers, but simply tells people how it will make their lives easier. Microsoft then turns to the second audience, the technical developers, and delivers separate, more technical, complex messages.

Keep in mind that with technical audiences the translation process often shifts weight from translation to how the delivery will be accomplished. Often little or no translation is needed as the audience may know as much or more than the communicator, but how the message is delivered can still affect how it is absorbed by a technical audience.

The Simple Route - Forming an Analogy

Creating an analogy allows people to understand the core message without understanding the entire issue. This simplistic approach is often taken when a simple, core message is all the audience needs to know.

For example, many people these days are hesitant to shop on the Internet because of the fear that their credit card numbers will be stolen. Companies are addressing this fear by comparing Internet credit card security to using your credit card in a traditional store where a clerk can easily see the credit card number. On the Internet, no one sees the credit card and the transaction is done using a high level of security (when was the last time you had security while purchasing a new shirt at your local department store?).

By comparing a new, complex situation involving computer encryption and other issues you don't want to learn about, to a familiar situation, shopping in a store, industry is slowly educating and overcoming consumer fears of shopping online.

Take caution in making a translated message too quick and simple. Such a scenario may raise questions that will create more complexity. It is always better to have a slightly longer message that answers all potential questions than a shorter one that causes additional confusion.

Technical Message Translation as an Educational Process

Although no specific process for translation is in place, seeing each challenge as one of educating a target audience can help the specific translation process.

The first question a communicator should ask is what the target audience or audiences want, need and expect to hear. For instance, is there a process involved that the audience should know about (such as the process of transferring money electronically)? Do they only need to know the end result (that the money arrives at its destination safely)? Or both?

Next, find out the current level of knowledge of each target audience for a specific issue. Today, many people have a low level of understanding of electronic commerce. But in the future, electronic commerce may well be an everyday activity.

Now lay out the contents of the message and consider whether they should be delivered to the audience whole, or, if the message is too technical after the translation process, if it might be easier to use a long-term approach and deliver it one digestible bit at a time.

A mixture of long- and short-term education should also be considered, such as teaching people how the Internet works over the long term, while trying to convince them to use it in the short term.

And all through the process, remember - relevance, relevance, relevance. All too often communicators forget what is relevant to the target audience. Many a message sent was quite appropriate, but was brushed off because it (the message) bore little relevance to the audience's collective lives.

Third-party spokespeople - such as associations, user and/or consumer groups - can help the education process by giving the message added legitimacy. Spokespeople also provide repetition which helps an audience absorb a message that still retains some complexity after the translation process.

Feedback - an Added Tool for the Translation Process

Once the translated message is out, the translation process still continues through feedback. Using such common feedback mechanisms as newspapers allows communicators to see how others received and often translated the message a second time, giving ideas on how to improve the translated message.

Of course, the communicator needs to use feedback to gauge how accurately the message is being received and if it needs adjustments. Remember, translating a message from any language is an ongoing job. After all, Homer's "Odyssey" has been translated countless times, and Homer's work doesn't even address adaptive differential pulse-code modulation.

Ephraim Cohen is a public affairs consultant with Edelman Public Relations in the areas of telecommunications, information technology and intellectual property in New York.
COPYRIGHT 1997 International Association of Business Communicators
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1997, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
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Author:Cohen, Ephraim
Publication:Communication World
Date:Dec 1, 1997
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