Lost In Translation


Language happens to be one of the most difficult obstacles we face as a Japanese company working with an American company for a technology project. To begin, I’d like you readers to watch a short clip from the movie, “Lost in Translation”.

Suntory Whiskey Commercial

Notice how the director is going on and on about something, and their hired interpreter has basically chopped it down to being “Look into the camera”? That’s a bit like the problems we’re currently facing.

For their latest automation, the customer has a list of requests for the interface. To address any ongoing programming issues, our customer sets weekly conference calls between US and Japan. Our customer does not speak Japanese, and only a select few of us speak both Japanese and English. None of the interpreters are engineers of software or machinery. Long story short-

REQUEST FROM CUSTOMER: Return back to Format “A” for a portion of interface data (Prescription Number + Store Number = XXXXXXXX-XXXXX) as originally used during prototype testing. Current format “B” is  only Prescription Number ( = XXXXXXXX)

OUR UNDERSTANDING/COMMENTS: We never, EVER had the store number displayed before. When was this request made?? We will adjust the software to reflect this change.

THE RESULT: The store number is now visible on the main Stand-by screen, and NOT on the requested areas by our customer. Fix is on the way, 24+ hours lost on unnecessary work and revisions. Again.

How did this happen? Like the Suntory Commerical, weak translation/language barriers can cause various setbacks to the nature of the project and its organization. Adding to this a massive workteam and timezome difference, the delays have a profound effect- loss of one day can equal the compound loss of a week’s worth of other groups’ working time.

The first problem is that our translators, including myself, vary in terms of in experience. Experience, in this case, can mean background, or project understanding, as well as fluency and the interpreter’s available vocabulary.

Now, add to this the problem of the translator’s “style”. Most companies who rely on internal translation/interpretation, they trade the strength of project/product knowledge for wildly variant translations. From our weekly conversations, I’ve heard translations that are “approximate” to “gisting”. And because none of us are career-interpreters who happen to work for the corporation, I’ve never heard a “Perfect”, 100% translation. An example of the types based on the above story-

Customer says: “We’d like the revert the Rx number format on the interface in the fill drug process to the way it was before, with store number after the prescription number.”

Perfect Translation: – (Exactly as above.)

Approximate Translation: “They’d like to revert the Rx number format back to the way it was before with store number.”

Gisted Translation: “They want to add the store number to the interface.”

How have we addressed this problem? The obvious solution would be to hire professional translators- possible experience problem, but nigh-perfect transmission. But seeing as how funding and manpower are limited, our solution has been to have additional written e-mails for more difficult issues that are not being resolved or being “lost in translation”. In addition, the interpreters roles have expanded to include “policing” the conversations. Recently implemented, we’ve not had enough time to assess the effectiveness of our new system, but our “initial” exchanges have proved to be insightful and much more accurate.

So, have any of you had any experience with major translation mistakes during projects? If so, how did your company deal with it? If you had to compromise (as we did), what did it “cost” your company, if anything?

5 thoughts on “Lost In Translation

  1. I was laughing my heart watching the clip from Lost in Translation. I’ve had similar experiences dealing with Japanese customers and translators. Its extremely hard to find a translator who performs not only the literal translation but understands the nuances and context of the conversation. One solution to this problem is to hire an in-house translator with knowledge of the products and technology of a company. However, in today’s environment this is cost prohibitive.

    Our solution was to use an agency but then we would only request specific translators that had developed tacit knowledge of our products and services. These were the only translators that would be called for their expert services during our technical and business meetings with Japanese customers.

  2. I don’t think I could handle working in a situation where my understanding of an issue was limited to someone’s ability to translate based upon their limited understanding of what is actually important. I feel that written communication is likely the best solution in this case as it is less likely to be paraphrased than verbal communication.

    In highly technical environments I feel, what a client says they want, what they actually want, what they need, and what you hear they want are already usually very different things. When you then add in changes from translation, you end up even farther apart most likely.

  3. Seeing as a lot of professions have employees that speak multiple languages, is it very difficult to find an engineer or speaks both Japanese and English fluently to solve the problems? But I also can see how this can cause a major set back in projects and how a project network chart can be disrupted.

  4. Hey everyone, thanks for the feedback.

    @Asif- You’ve hit the nail on the head. It truly is cost-prohibitive to hire a professional, career translator to become familiar with the intricacies of the products. And we deal with pharmaceutical robots (dispensing, pouching, and even more like compounding and chemo-type robots). Our solution is currently in-house translators- myself included. We have the tacit knowledge of the products, but the translation is often difficult and “gisted” when it becomes too technical or shifts from programming to mechanical function.

    @ Brendan – I absolutely agree- it’s challenging at best, and a total cluster at worst. (although, the worst hasn’t been seen during this 1.5 year project, praise the Maker). And YES- we’re hearing wants and needs from a non-technical business-group, who are often times not in 100% agreement/communication with the programmers on their side either. This results in shifts back and forth between requirements and lost time.

    @Levik- If only it were that simple. Unfortunately, it is actually quite difficult to find that career-translator who happens to work for your company for a very long time to acquire that language necessary to talk about technical intricacies with the customer’s techs. Becoming an interpretor is a career in and of itself- and certification means that you’re ready to at least be able to translate from a myriad of subjects- political, medical, technical, etc, but not focused on one. A bi-lingual engineer is something of a rarity- as they specialize in engineering, possibly speak one or (more rarely) both languages to “native” level, but the third block is also vocabulary base- Cellphone engineering words are completely different from medical technology, or even radar-type tech.

  5. I can only imagine the issues and headaches that are created through working on a highly unique and specialized task with different languages and cultures involved. Fortunately, I was able to earn a second Bachelor’s degree in Spanish and I understand the frustrations of translating all too well. Realistically, there is never a perfect translation from one language to the next. Words not only have different meanings in different languages, but also different connotations in different cultures. Working as a translator was one of the most frustrating jobs because I felt that I could never fully deliver the intended message. With that said, it is nearly impossible to be able to afford and hire the exact personnel to satisfy the specialization and language requirement. The proposed issue is one that will only become more apparent in the future and presents an interesting opportunity for any entrepreneurs out there. Good luck to anyone dealing with a situation like this!

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