In my former career, just like this one, with every new territory came new challenges. Cultural, as well as linguistic obstacles and the ability to work with international partners became key to our success or failure. In some cases this was the difference between making a real difference to the people we were there to help and getting everybody back safely accounted for or not. When some of our more intense work was relocated, along with personnel, from one theatre to another very different location, it provided more entertainment for those of us who were better accustomed to working in certain arenas as a matter of course. We would wait to watch the fresh team’s attempts at trying to be culturally sensitive and make headway, yet it was clear as soon as they arrived that they hadn’t done the essential hard work before their boots had actually left UK soil.
I remember watching an operator about to deploy on a discreet operation and in between hysterical laughter I believe that I may have very possibly saved his life, as well as his credibility. He appeared in my office doorway asking for a “a few key phrases”. I looked up from my desk and saw a vision of fake tan, boot polish and glued on hair. “Where’s the party? I take it you’ve come as Team America, World Police?”.
“I’m on discreet ops”
“You’re obvious and that get up is either a joke or a bet”
“I blend in”
“No you don’t”
“If anyone had to describe me they’d say a 5’ 10” bloke with dark hair and skin”
“They’d say have you seen Team America? Like him but with blue eyes and wearing a sheet that was meant to be a dishdasha”
Our appraisals of his efforts were very different. A few expletives were exchanged before he turned tail and washed off the ridiculous disguise. We then sat down as two professionals and found a better way to achieve his objectives. To this day I shudder to think how far he would have got like that before being snatched and appearing on Al Jazeera. On a serious note though, in another theatre this operator was highly experienced and extremely successful. His inability to adapt and adequately prepare, however, could have eclipsed all of his fantastic achievements in other locations and his one error in many years could have become the most prominent point of his career among his peers internationally. Thankfully we avoided this by going back to the drawing board and once I’d dried my eyes and caught my breath, working together.
Another liaison team had already done the damage with a local personality before I was sent in to join them. The hierarchy couldn’t understand why a previously successful and mutually beneficial relationship had suddenly ground to a halt and become somewhat frosty. They had placed their best and most amiable liaison officer onto the case and yet the response was stubbornly hostile, yet nobody could fathom why. I was sent in as a cultural adviser and interpreter to assess the situation and within two minutes it became glaringly obvious what had happened. Cursory get-to-know you questions had been asked of the local personality but nobody had bothered to check what his responses meant and what his true standing locally was. I halted the meeting as soon as I was told his position within the local community and gave the team a quick brief on what his position and profile equated to in terms that they could relate to. He was actually a key figure nationally who should have been shown the utmost respect. His position and standing had a direct impact on everything from how he was to be addressed during meetings through to how joint ventures were pursued with him. We managed to turn the relationship around and thankfully went on to do some great work together. The liaison officer hadn’t intentionally caused offence and was one of the nicest people you could ever wished to have met, but his lack of knowledge about the arena he was operating in had found him wanting and done the damage for him.
On another occasion I had asked a junior linguist to do some translations from a local newspaper for practice. I asked why a project that had been the topic of the article had been postponed and his reply was “because of the harvest festival”. I pointed out that as we were in the middle of winter there was no harvest and that the area we were operating in didn’t have Harvest Festival like the UK. I asked to see the part of the text where he had found the reference and the phrase was “A day of honey, a day of onions”. He had taken the phrase literally and applied it as a national holiday. What it actually means is “You win some, you lose some”.
In my previous employ mistakes like these could have cost lives, damaged confidence and credibility or set the political progress back decades. In business it costs money and damages your brand. HSBC published their findings of a survey recently that by 2014 they anticipate an explosion in UK firms working internationally. Even the largest UK household names still seek advice before taking the first steps to becoming internationally successful thereby ensuring that they do it right first time. Sector specific international teams help customers to localise their products, websites and brands, making these not only linguistically correct but also ensuring they are culturally appropriate. Better to do it correctly at the outset than to become a caricature and not be taken seriously, or worse inadvertently offensive.
The key is: if you have identified a new international arena to get involved in then don’t be afraid to ask the experts, an experienced international language services agency probably already has the answers to your questions. If not, get them to point you in the direction of a qualified research team who you can be will find out all the answers. That way when your boots hit the ground you’ll be prepared and ready for action and you can leave the drawing boards at home!