Lost In Translation

Dec. 21, 2004
Words alone can't reveal the complexity of a culture.

The bottle of 12-year-old single-malt Scotch hit the floor and shattered, showering the bar with precious whiskey and shards of glass. The Mexican busboy looked up at his boss and said, "Se rompi" ("It broke.") "It didn't break!" the bartender yelled. "You dropped it!" The busboy said nothing. "What do you have to say for yourself?" the bartender prompted. The busboy shrugged. "As lo quiere Dios." ("That's the way God wants it.") The bartender sighed and ordered him to clean up the mess. Then, to his bar customers, he launched into to a tirade about the supposed superiority of English over Spanish. "Did you hear what he said?" the bartender demanded. " 'It broke.' Not 'I broke it,' or even 'It slipped out of my hands.' Just, 'It broke.' Spanish encourages you to evade responsibility that way. That reflexive pronoun 'se' -- it puts the blame back on the subject. 'It broke itself.' Nobody did it. Nobody's responsible. Things just happen. I don't even have to apologize. Not my fault." That bartender knew just enough Spanish to translate the busboy's words. Unfortunately, he didn't understand the full context of what was being said. He made a literal translation while retaining his English-speaking mind-set, and drew inappropriate conclusions. One culture-specific characteristic at work here concerns causality. The bartender, like most native English-speakers, feels that blame should be assigned when something goes wrong. But relatively few cultures do this. Ascribing responsibility for events to God is not unique to Spanish. For example, in colloquial Arabic, one of the most commonly heard phrases is "inshallah," meaning "Allah willing." Other cultures ascribe responsibility to fate or destiny, such as Cantonese Chinese ("Joss") or Turkish ("Kismet"). In such cultures it is not always necessary to assign blame. If the busboy dropped the bottle, perhaps God wanted the bottle to be dropped. Life is infinitely complex and beyond our understanding. Maybe the liquor was tainted. Maybe breaking a bottle will, in the long run, lead to something good. This doesn't mean that a fumble-fingered employee would be tolerated in these cultures. It just means that blame is not automatically assigned. We used to ascribe some actions to the will of God in English. But perhaps because you can't sue God we've gotten out of the habit. (When was the last time you heard an English-speaking executive use the words "God willing" about a business matter?) Another cross-cultural observation about the interchange between the busboy and the bartender concerns apologies. The bartender clearly wanted an apology. In some cultures, such as English and Japanese, apologies are relatively common. But in most cultures, including Spanish, apologies occur less often. Learning to go beyond literal translations can be difficult. Hispanic advertising executive Lionel Sosa has examined such translations in his new book, The Americano Dream (1998, E.P. Dutton). Here are his interpretations of some Spanish phrases and how they are heard by both Latinos and Anglos:

  • "Para servirle," a common expression by service personnel, such as waiters. Literal translation: Here to serve you. Meaning to Latino: My pleasure. Implication to Anglo: Wow! My valet!
  • "De nada," a common response to "thank you." Literal translation: It's nothing. Meaning to Latino: You're welcome. Implication to Anglo: He/she must believe what I'm saying "thanks" for has little value.
  • " Mndeme," a response after name is called. Literal translation: Command me. Meaning to Latino: Yes? Implication to Anglo: He/she must want me to tell him/her what to do.
Globalization brings speakers of different languages in closer contact than ever before. But as we try to communicate across linguistic barriers, we need to remember that the literal translation is not necessarily the correct one. Wayne A. Conaway and Terri Morrison are coauthors of Kiss, Bow or Shake Hands: How to Do Business In Sixty Countries; Dun & Bradstreet's Guide to Doing Business Around the World; and two new books, The International Traveler's Guide to Doing Business in the European Union and The International Traveler's Guide to Doing Business in Latin America. For more information on Getting Through Customs seminars, online database, and books, telephone 610/725-1040; fax 610/725-1074; or email [email protected]. Or write to Box 136, Newtown Square, PA 19073. Visit the Getting Through Customs Web site at http://www.getcustoms.com.

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