Monday, June 05, 2006


In today’s A Word A Day e-newsletter, Wordsmith Anu Garg focused on the word “internationalization.” He offers two definitions:

“1. The act or process of making something international or placing
it under international control.

“2. Making a product or process suitable for use around the globe.”

Something too many companies don’t recognize is that translation is an important part of internationalization, especially in terms of the second definition. Making something suitable for use in another country is not “just replacing error messages from a new language,” as Mr. Garg refers to the process of making a computer program internationalized. Rather, it involves understanding the culture behind the language, and adjusting the language usage to that.

When I taught some English courses at a Swedish advertising agency, I was surprised when some of the students happened to mention that ads they made for the Swedish market had to be significantly changed for the Finnish market. Finland and Sweden were geographically so close, I thought, and Finland was historically influenced by Sweden and even had Swedish-speaking populations, so I didn’t see why the ads wouldn’t work there. But as a translator, I soon realized that this made sense. Finland’s culture is not the same as Sweden’s and even if the countries share some history and some similarities, a Swedish company that assumed it didn’t have to adapt its ads to Finland, or even translate them to Finnish, was not being respectful of its market, and would perhaps not do much business there.

Besides understanding the target market, which some companies have even started employing anthropologists for, a company interested in internationalization has to hire skilled translators as well. But the sheer number of poorly translated products, instructions, and ads, some featured on Jay Leno’s “Headlines” segment each week, makes it clear that many companies around the world haven’t quite figured out just what internationalization means yet. Hopefully they got Mr. Garg’s message today.

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