Being an English to English translator

Why would you need to translate from English to English when it’s the same language? Because in an international workforce, the de facto standard language might be English but that doesn’t mean that everybody is speaking the same English. Throw in a stressful situation and sometimes you need to call in an English to English translator to help determine what everybody is really trying to say versus what others think they are saying. There’s a subtle but important difference there.

I was recently brought into an escalation for a particular web site that went down. It had been moved into production for the first time on a Friday and was down several times over the weekend. By Tuesday, management was starting to quote the lost revenue per hour in an attempt to motivate the particular team of people working on the problem (as if that were actually necessary, not). At that point I got invited to a daily escalation meeting involving one of my development teams, our support team, and the vendor whose software we built the solution on top of in an attempt to troubleshoot the root cause of the problem.

As it turned out, I brought very little to the technical discussion but because I hadn’t been up all night for 4 days working on a fix like everybody else, so I played more of a mediator role. It took me an hour into the 90 minute meeting to recognize that we had a language barrier that was playing a major role in our collective inability to solve this problem.

The main antagonists were the lead engineer who dotted line reports to me and the lead architect for the vendor. My guy is originally from India and English is his second language. The vendor architect is from Italy and English is his third language. What became clear is that these two very intelligent guys were often saying the same thing, but because their use of English was very different based on where they originally came from they were under the impression that they were at odds with each other when they weren’t as far apart as they thought.

One of my Dad’s favorite jokes is that he took 4 years of Spanish in high school. Two years of Spanish 1 and two years of Spanish 2. In Spanish, objects have gender which often needs to be reflected in articles or adjectives associated with them. Such subtlety is missing from English. Similarly, descriptive details in English tend to come before a subject but in other languages it’s the other way around.

These details might seem minor, but they can become significant, especially when people are stressed out to begin with. Multiply the variances by the number of speakers you have on the phone and it can become complex rather quickly. A lot of people in the US have little patience for non-English speakers, but my attitude towards it is that, in this situation as an example, I speak no Italian or any dialects popular in India so I don’t have a lot of room to complain about command of English others may or may not have. If anything, everybody is doing me a favor here.

While hardly an expert, here’s a few things I’ve noticed:

  • Word choice – It’s hard to choose the right word to describe a situation or feeling for anybody, but when you are thinking in one language and speaking in another it’s a lot more difficult. If a particular word comes up again and again, probe for what the person means by it. Confusion is easily caused by an understandably limited vocabulary.
  • Tone – The way something is said is as important as the words used. An accent may masquerade as an unintentional emotion, so if things are unclear or contentious try listening again and ignoring the tone. Paying particular attention to body language is good for this too, if you are face to face.
  • Time – When paying careful attention to WHAT someone is suggesting, it is equally crucial to understand WHEN they are suggesting it. This was the exact situation in the call I was brought into. The vendor was suggesting something as a short term, stop gap solution to keep the site from going down and my lead guy (and initially me as well) thought he meant that as a permanent fix, which we weren’t comfortable with. Given all the nuances of describing something, it is easy to omit the time line being suggested. Probe for that when things aren’t going well.

There are probably tons of other things to look for, but those are the ones that came across in my recent experience. Again, I only speak one language so I don’t have too much room to complain about how well someone speaks English when I can’t speak anything else. Still, if you look out for how someone might be struggling with it, you may resolve your differences more quickly.

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5 Responses to “Being an English to English translator”

  1. Ewan Says:

    As someone from Britain who’s currently sat at a cluster of desks with 2 native english speakers including myself, 3 Hindi speakers, and 1 Tamil speaker, I can’t agree more – the importance of really listening and trying to understand each other can’t be overstated.

    The other thing I find that can be very confusing at first is the body language involved, someone shaking their head at you while saying “I understand” is just bizarre to someone from Britain, and there are dozens of other body language signs which are different in other cultures

  2. Luis C García Says:

    Excellent note. It’s not easy to find some one with your ideas related to language.

    Something else that should be put into consideration is how different humor is across countries. A very common and funny remark said in Spanish could be considered offensive in English.

    False friends words such as “embarrased” which sounds like “preganant” in Spanish or “Terrific” which sounds like “terrible” can be worked out with some intermediate english lessons, but I guess there’s gotta be a bunch of others around.

    Cheer,

  3. Esmit Pérez C Says:

    Having worked in multicultural/multilingual environments for over 10 years I totally relate to your experience. I consider myself to have a very good command in english, but a couple jobs back I had a huge misunderstanding with a coworker, all around the meaning of the verb “ignore”. He was Australinan, living in London, 6 hours ahead from Costa Rica.

    In spanish “ignore” means “to not know something”, in english it means you do not want to take care of something. When asked about whether I could provide insight into a situation, I replied “I ignored if I could”, the next morning hell had broken loose at the office.

    Ten minutes into a very heated called we finally discovered the whole reason and we went back to be BFF, LOL.

  4. petecj2 Says:

    I’m always surprised by what provokes comments and what doesn’t, but to hear some positive response from such a wide variety of international folks on this one makes me smile. I agree with all of the thoughtful comments here, thanks for contributing guys.

  5. Luis C García Says:

    I guess same works for Rock bands. They name an album after the song they think people is gonna like the most, and they fail almost everytime. I hope you have better results!

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