How not to look like a fool when interacting internationally

Photo: Lost in Translation by Focus Features

A laughable email from a translation service proves it: once you cross boundaries, you’re at risk of seeming like a fool. We’re quick to see foolishness in those from outside our boundaries, but not so fast to see it in ourselves when we travel. Here are a few reflections, along with steps you can take to protect yourself from looking like an idiot.

First, here’s the email that my friend received. I’ve changed his name, but nothing else:

Subject: Wiitrans_Translation and Localization Service

Dear  Xxxxx,

This is Sally from Wiitrans. We’re a multi-lingual service provider,mainly focusing on doucumentation translation for warious industries. We’ve successfully helped our clients by offeting qualified and cost-effective translation services.Thus I’m wondering wherther your company would also need such support .If you’re the appropriate person to discuss with,it would be great if you could let me know your opinion.

We could support almost all content based translation,including patent,website,software,technical/legal documentation,investigation questionnaires,press release,etc.You ‘re welcome to check our quality and projectexperience at anytime.

I’m writing in the hope of getting in contact with the person in charge of translation and localization projects in your company .Sorry to take your time if you are not the appropriate person,but if there was someone else in your company that handles this,I would appreciate your referral.

Warm Regards,


Poor Sally! She can’t spell documentation, various, offering, or whether. She has no idea where spaces go around periods and commas. And she works for a translation service! What an epic fail!

I have no sympathy for Sally and Wiitrans, they ought to know better.

But when you write to people in China, India, France, or even the UK, does your email seem like this to them?

Americans tend to stick to English when communicating with those overseas; luckily for us, English the common language of business in most of the world. (A Korean businessperson doing business with a German is probably speaking English.)

But cultures get lost in translation. I’ve been guilty of causing a low-level business person in China to lose face over his inability to translate my PowerPoint slides. In the UK, the person who appears to mildly agree with you may think you’re a fool; the one who respects you is more likely to engage in actual back-and-forth. When you insult someone from another culture, even inadvertently, deals don’t happen.

If you don’t want to look like Sally, here are a few recommendations:

  • Get a native reviewer to look over your content. And when your Japanese or Italian friend says “It’s probably better to say it this way,” take notes on why, and fix it.
  • When traveling, seek a trusted guide. I was fortunate to have local Forrester salespeople with me in most of my interactions in Europe, Asia, and South America. They explained their countrymen and -women to me, explained me to them, and made me look great (or prevented me from looking bad). When traveling, you’re utterly dependent on people like this; treat them as valued companions.
  • Gratitude and listening are universal. The first word I learn in any language is “Thank you.” Regardless of what sort of interaction you have with people, gratitude is always welcome. So is listening, a skill you must practice harder when the people you’re speaking with are not communicating in their native tongues. If you can’t perfectly understand them, and they can’t perfectly understand you, then talk less and listen more. That’s appreciated regardless of culture.

At some point, publishers in foreign countries will ask to publish translations of my book. I worry about how my advice my sound to those who speak other languages, or even English speakers with different countries. (I am betting it will go over well in Australia — they may even find it redundant — but the English may see it as laughably American.) You can bet I’ll be listening and learning from that experience.

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  1. In my experience overseas, the worst thing you can do is not to try and use the local language, however incompetent you feel. I can’t think of a single occasion in which my clumsy attempts to use foreign languages was not actively welcomed and appreciated by native speakers.