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Strong Vodka, Rotten Meat

24th July 2019

Untold damage can be caused when we fail to choose our words and gestures with care

As Britain welcomes a new Prime Minister and more and more British businesses seek partnerships beyond these shores it’s worth reflecting on the pitfalls we face, commercially, culturally and diplomatically, when we don’t choose our words or gestures with care.


Believe it or not, this colourful phrase started out as “the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak”.  In a clumsy mistranslation from English to Russian, it’s fair to say that willing or not, the spirit of the message has been lost.

Abstract terms such as “spirit” are a major stumbling block for the inexperienced translator, and the negative knock-on effect for the audience can be damaging. Many of us make good use of abstract language in our corporate brochures and marketing material. Translations which fail to convey the spirit of a message, or worse make it nonsensical, could hardly be more counter-productive.

In Britain the simple act of showing five spread fingers with the palm facing out would be unlikely to provoke a reaction. In Greece, however, it would cause deep offence. Greek people refer to this gesture as “moutza” and it dates back to Byzantine times when prisoners were paraded with their faces covered in dirt, which was applied with their own palms. Centuries later it remains one of the most common gestures of insult among Greeks.

Some of the most successful British exporters have learned these cultural lessons the hard way, and the message we hear time and time again is a simple one: if you’re targeting a completely unfamiliar market, don’t go it alone. Even companies with market leading products have suffered costly failures overseas. A sizeable promotional budget can disappear before your eyes, with little or no impact on consumers.

At a recent trade exhibition a CEO who had invested heavily in exporting to the APAC region told me of the time wasted and expense incurred by attending one regional event after another with little or no return. In each case the events were teeming with decision makers who spoke good English but weren’t buying what he was selling. Eventually he decided to start communicating with his target audiences in their native tongues, and the picture changed almost overnight. It’s too easy to assume that just because a buyer understands English, they’re happy and comfortable doing business in English. Basic professional courtesy suggests that we should meet others halfway. Common sense suggests that the more comfortable we make our target customers, the more likely they are to become actual customers.

Clients seeking to connect with consumers in unfamiliar countries can have their message shaped by translators and interpreters who live, work, buy and sell there. People completely in tune with a target market because they’re part of it.

Of course you can go it alone, and we’ve all come across examples of businesses that succeed without any outside support.  But there are many more examples of businesses that succeed by seeking out specialist advice at every stage. Identifying trusted partners with shared values, and working closely with them to mutual advantage. Partners like Conversis. Sixteen years as a language service provider of choice to clients who simply can’t afford to get it wrong tells you that when it matters most, ours is the number you should be calling. When you work with Conversis the spirit will definitely be willing and nothing about the service will be weak.


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