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The importance of dialogue between translators and customers

Words, phrases and idioms often carry a particular meaning in one language that may not have a direct equivalent in another. This is why translation involves much more than a simple process of translating a text word-for-word.

For example, many languages use the subjunctive mood to express a statement made without certainty and also have a formal and an informal form of address. However, English does not employ many of these rules of formality and does not feature some of the verb tenses found in other languages.

How can you translate nuances of formality from languages that use forms such as Spanish informal and formal usted, French tu and vous, and German du and Sie into English, which only has “you”? In everyday conversation, most people form their own ideas about when and to whom the polite form should apply, but when it comes to translation, decisions around which form to use are based on more detailed background information about the text.

The linguist needs the commissioner of the translation to provide certain details: What is the target country? What is the age of the target audience? Do you want to demonstrate a close, casual rapport with your customers through the translation? Or would you like to sound friendly while maintaining a certain level of formality and politeness?  Have you previously translated content that sounded somewhat formal?

This can get even trickier when dealing with languages such as Spanish where there are regional variations as well. I find it funny when I listen to my Mexican friend’s son saying the expression ¿mande? - the Mexican way of saying “pardon?” – which, in Castilian Spanish, means “give me an order”.

The truth is that Mexican speech is very, very polite! For example, in the professional world in Mexico, the formal usted is the preferred form to address all customers, whether in a coffee shop or a luxurious spa. This means that if you are targeting Mexican customers with your website or marketing materials, you need to write with a high level of formality, regardless of other factors such as brand values or the age of the target audience. 

Which leads neatly to the importance of localisation (the process by which a product is made linguistically and culturally appropriate to the target country/region where it will be used and sold). Companies do not only want to sell in many languages other than English, they want to sell in multiple versions of the same language: for example, some 20 regional varieties of Spanish are listed in the menu of Microsoft Word.

However, for obvious reasons, not all companies can commission a translation into 20 different regional dialects. Hence, the expert advice of a professional translator is key to ensuring that your translation is successful in your target market(s).

Experienced linguists can produce copy that is inclusive, rather than exclusive, for example, using linguistic strategies that make sure the content is gender-neutral.

These examples show the importance of dialogue between customers and linguists. Assumptions as to what are the brand values or customers’ preferences do not contribute to producing high quality translations. Providing linguistic consultancy prior to the translation is the best thing to do!