Lost in Translation

Here’s a wonderfully-phrased question from a reader, which I’d like to put out there for your comments. Our correspondent writes: “As the marketing person at our manufacturing company I get daily emails from many companies in China offering to sell us any number of products. What I find odd is that the written English is atrocious. We’re not talking Bank of Namibia phishing scams. These appear to be bonafide parts manufacturers or suppliers hoping to do business with Western companies.

“The choosing of English phrases is often almost comical. And while I am not fully multi-lingual, I would hope that any attempt on my part to speak another language isn’t as confused as the thousands of emails that many of us receive.

“My question is ‘Why?’ You would think that any company of any worth would hire a fully-talented translator or someone much more fluent in English. Heck, why not just pay someone here a small amount per email message to smooth things over and make them business worthy?

“Maybe by appearing to be not superior to the reader, the author hopes that the reader will think that they have the upper hand, and that this ‘smarter than them’ vision will make the readers think that they can take advantage of the situation and get good products at a steal of a price? I’m beginning to think, given the almost perfect percentage of badly worded emails sent daily, that this ‘playing the fool’ tactic may be the purposeful intent.

“If not, and it is a reliance on readily available translation talent among Chinese students who haven’t had enough real English conversations, then sign me up to be an email corrector. I could keep myself in beer money for quite a while!”

What do you think?

7 thoughts on “Lost in Translation”

  1. I read somewhere the ineptitude of the Nigerian emails was deliberate – for the same reason as in the article: to encourage a feeling of superiority

  2. You may have something there Chris. I get too many e-mails such as this to count. Not only are they badly written, they’re irrelevant – trying to sell me something we don’t need or that we actually make ourselves!

  3. With many years working with Chinese people in business I would suggest that they’re not ‘playing the fool’ tactic. The key point to make is that are not English and therefore do not judge situations/people like we do. They are straight forward to the point of damn right rude sometimes and do not consider the small ‘niceties’ that we English hold so dear. So to answer your question, there is a good opportunity to offer a translation service. I doubt if they have ever thought it an important issue though so would probably not take you up on any offer.

  4. This reminds me of the controversy (among Irish Speakers) on the use of Google Translate to translate material from (mostly) English. The number of people who understand Irish is in excess of 1million (out of a population of ca 6m) but it is used by considerably less in their daily life and most people have a reasonable grasp of English. Sometimes this leads to some hilarity such “Féach an ceart!” as a translation of “Look right!”. The problem is that the word right has at least two meanings in English. “Right” as in “civil right!” (‘an ceart” in Irish) and “Right” meaning a direction (‘ar dheis’ in Irish). The warning thus should have read “Féach ar dheis!”

  5. It’s a good observation. I just think it comes down to a massive cultural and linguistic gap that they don’t work hard enough to bridge. I notice the same at trade fairs in Europe and the US, where there are often the ‘Chinese halls’. This is a bit of a generalisation but the Chinese stands don’t look great, are often much quieter and their messaging and literature is not translated well. If they want to have more impactful marcoms and engage with new European customers, they’re going to have to up their game: like you say, this could be an opportunity.

  6. Badly written English is not just the privilege of Chinese or other foreign companies.
    I receive a lot of emails and communication from English companies with bad grammar and spelling with the variety of:
    ‘There instead of their’, ‘should of’ instead of ‘should‘ve’, ‘your instead of you’re’, etc.
    I am not quite sure which is worse. It drives me mad!!
    (….and English is my second language)

  7. I have lived in China (briefly) before, and speak Chinese (I’m American). In my experience, I have found that sometimes what happens is that someone a bit lower in the organization is asked to do the English translations by someone higher up that doesn’t speak any English (or very little). The person actually doing the English work doesn’t want to ask for help because it will make them look bad to their boss. Since the boss doesn’t know how good the English is they can send out what ever they want and the boss won’t know the difference. I think it has more to do with culture than anything.

    As to the Nigerian scammers – The explanation that I’ve heard (and believe) is that the people running the scams don’t care about their click through rate – they care about getting money. So they intentionally use horrible language because they only people who are going to respond are the people that are actually likely to fall for the scam. They don’t want to deal with a bunch of people who are going to figure out it is a scam after the second or third email because it just wastes their time. They are trying to sift through people and find those that are actually likely to send them money. To me this is a great marketing lesson – let’s not try a bunch of tricks to get people to open our emails, or visit our site, if they are all the wrong people. If you can get 10,000 people to visit your site, but only 100 ever buy or you can get 200 people to your site and 100 of them buy, why waste the resources on driving the wrong people to the site?

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