Finance, business

The “cervix of hamon effect” in Russian business

10 Mar '15
I hope you'll enjoy this op-ed below, courtesy of Paul Goncharoff, a member of Marchmont’s Advisory Board and the chairman of the Ethics and Membership Committees for Russia’s Organization of Corporate Directors and Management. Drawing upon decades of his business experience with Russia, in his article Paul highlights a critical and often overlooked problem of cross-cultural communication. With its quality compromised, a company’s international ambitions may end up in a painful nosedive.

In these “sanctioned times” it is doubly vital that the nuances of meaning originating in Russian or in English be as fully congruent, tuned and replicated with cultural and contextual relevance when reborn into the other language.

The manner with which Russian ideas are presented and converted to in English (and equally for English to Russian) should definitely be prioritized by risk managers as a significant factor to address; it is the carrier enabling or disabling the profits and success of even the very best proposals, positions, films or products.

In doing business with Russia since the 1970s I have regularly witnessed the neglect demonstrated by both English and Russian entities in taking the ‘crafting steps’ necessary to achieve clear, understandable and easily digested bilingual communications. In these times when commerce is under not only competitive but added political pressures, it is even more vital to get it right.

Recently, a Russian agro-holding sent out English language proposals describing their various pork products. Their time, intent, reputation and funds for this effort were wasted, no results. One reason, among several, was translation failures. One that stood out: in Russian a very popular cut is known as “neck of pork”, in English that is a pork shoulder, but what came out from the linguistically challenged translator was “Cervix of Hamon”. How the Spanish term appeared is a mystery, but even that was misspelled with an ‘H’ instead of the correct ‘J’. The neck part is a bit clearer as matters uterine and cervical are often discussed privately and publicly between secretaries or on mass transit, and the term ‘neck’ is now often understood to refer to that part of the anatomy.

On a more serious note Sergey Lavrov, the Russian Foreign Minister on a number of occasions made statements in Russian in both video and press interviews concerning the Ukraine situation, which were then translated into English and made their way into the non-Russian media. Listening to him in Russian, then reading what had morphed into English, while similar, in no way communicated the meaning, subtlety or intent that this most erudite man had made quite clearly in Russian. The escalating effects such unintended misunderstandings are having in both the media and foreign electorates on both sides are distressingly evident – and with responsible care could have been defused.

Recently the Russian film Leviathan won an award at Cannes. The film was in Russian, but the tremendous care and linguistic artistry used in producing the subtitles made a key difference. I learned that they went through several potential translation companies, before finding the best, a specialized niche translation boutique in St Petersburg. Oddly enough, being pound wise and penny foolish is a common trait worldwide when recreating ideas into another language. If the executives responsible for Leviathan hadn’t made the herculean efforts to find the right translator/subtitler, and simply trusted their initial “professional translator”, there would have been no Cannes, no award, no international sales; there would, however, have been unhappy investors. A lesson learned and confirmed.

The number of true linguist-artist-professionals in the Russian-English/English-Russian translation field can be counted on half of one hand. For most purposes the many translation companies working in the market produce a reasonable product, bearing in mind that they translate dozens of languages; this serves a purpose. However, it is best to find those firms which do nothing but English-Russian, and specialize in-depth, as only they are capable of taking the necessary care to produce key communications in another language. Ensure that the language professionals are composed of native speaker teams, that they are familiar with your business terminology environment, and that they have native speakers editing (and making key usage recommendations to you), with a final specialized proofreading also by a native speaker to guarantee the translated message looks or sounds like it was originally created in that language. The best, interestingly enough, are not to be found in Moscow, but in centers like St Petersburg, where lower overheads permit the costly attention to craft and quality. The extra money paid to get what is needed is negligible, compared to the costs of a failed project or ignored business.
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Tags: hamon (0) / cross cultural communication (0) / Paul Goncharoff (0) /

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