The Importance of Communication – Don’t Get Lost in Translation

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Published July 25, 2017

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In a recent meeting the presenter stated, “That question is brilliant!” I looked at the presenter with a confused look because the statement felt as an extreme acknowledgement and the phrase felt misapplied. After the presenter explained his background (birth city and schooling), the intended message became apparent to my chagrin.

“The most important thing in
communication is to hear,
what isn’t being said”.


Peter Drucker
Management Consulting

My confusion stemmed from my background in which the word brilliant meant characteristics of having or showing great intelligence, talent, quality, being distinguished, and illustrious. From my background, using this term elevated it to a level of excellence. In the presenters mind, it was merely a good question but not one reaching an insightful game changing level.

The comment was made in a meeting containing an audience from many different countries including Nigeria, India, Mexico, Pakistan, and the United Kingdom, to name a few. While his intended message now makes total sense to me, I began to wonder how often I chose words in an explanation in which the essence of the message was not best defined by the literal translation of my words.

I then began to think back on my many trips around the world (e.g. Australia, Japan, Thailand, Argentina, Brazil, etc.) where, I chose words that to me precisely defined my intended message. How much of the message was “lost in translation”? While, the receiver may have heard the words, did he/she really understand the context of the word choice and really understand the intended message?

Every Word Has An Origin

Before we look at the art of word combinations, it makes sense to understand how the origin of a word impacts its meaning. The word brilliant originated as an adjective from the 17c Venetian cutter Vencenzo Peruzzi when he cut a flat top on a diamond. The original word, beryllus, was a Latin word used in reference to a precious stone. Etymologists believe the word evolved into vulgar Latin to berillare, meaning to shine like a beryl. 

The word then evolved into Italian with a meaning to sparkle. It then migrated in the late 17c to the French language where the term brilliant was presented. The French used it using a meaning of shining. Once in Europe, the word began to be used worldwide as European trading expanded.

Language Translation

In 2016, there was an estimated 5.4% of the world’s population (400 million of an estimated 7.4 billion) speaking English as their first language. In the United States, we are experiencing a rise in the number of households using a language other than English as their first language. Between 1980 and 2009, the US has experienced a 148% increase (from 23.1 million to 57.1 million) or 20% of households, where the first language spoken at home is not English. This is a rise from 1980 when only 11% did not use English as their first language.


Figure 1: Size of the Non-English Speaking Population

For non-native English speakers, they (knowingly or unknowingly) translate the English words they hear into their native tongue to develop an understanding of the message. This is often the process I go through as I venture around the world. They will rattle their “internal dictionary” to find a similar word to their native tongue to translate the message so it can be processed. What we often fail to recognize, as the presenter, is that the recipient may have selected the wrong tense or similar choice word that would make the intended message stronger or have a different meaning.

Does this sound simple? Let’s take the word bolt as an example. The word bolt can mean a type of metal fastener, a single ray of lightening (e.g. lightning bolt), or to run extremely fast. Depending on the breadth of the recipient’s vocabulary, he/she may not understand your word choice.

The meaning or feeling applied to words that we commonly use is a product of our experiences. How we use them is based on experiences (e.g. good, bad, in movies, on television, etc.) we connect to them and often apply a subtle variation to how it is used. Only those with a similar background (e.g. a family member, a good friend, a long term co-worker, etc.) will understand the subtlety of the intended message. As a result, we will use words that potential mean a lot more to us than our audience.

Put this word by word digestion in the context of a stream of words provided at an acceptable communication pace and you can begin to understand how a message is “lost in translation”. While it is easy to recognize this in a language to language transfer, this also occurs more subtly domestically where our regional norms impact word use and context. Recognizing the impact of this paradigm will help you recognize why your intended message may be getting lost.

Cross Cultural Communication

Cultural norms impact the way in which we approach situations and others. For example, it is very normal for people in France to kiss each other on the cheek when greeting one another. In the US, this is not the norm and would not be received the same.  I have found over the years, that the best way to bridge cultural norms is to respect the differences. Be open to understanding the differences in a respectful way. Through your understanding, you will be guided on the right means of communication.

I remember traveling to Beijing and listening to two native speakers carry out a conversation. After their encounter, I asked the person having the discussion if everything was alright. He told me it was very friendly and wondered why I asked. I told him the tone and sound of the conversation seemed very heated and confrontational.

This encounter has made me become more sensitive to the tone and the way I communicate a message. I realized that the tone in my voice could not only impact the intended meaning, but may cause the recipient to receive the message in a different way than intended. What messages are you delivering that may not match your words?

Internal Alignment

Within a business, each functional area is structured to “own” that area of the business and ensure the end product delivers the best business performance. Internal business units develop their own norms and language. They communicate internally to direct actions and activities. They will create their own language. This helps eliminate words and enables the team members to say as few words as possible with the intended result being delivered.

Dysfunctional teams or ones where this internal language does not materialize, struggle to work together because messages and requirements are lost between players. They find they use words that make total sense to themselves but not to others, resulting in unintended actions. This is explained by the lack of common language.

Functional teams will interface with other teams to deliver cross functional results. When these teams have not worked together in the past or have not spent the time to develop a casual relationship, they will struggle at first to develop a common language. Once established, the teams will work well together with minimal dialogue and produce at a very high level.

Talking To A 3PL

The current trend in the market is to use third party resources, to delivery industry best practice solutions reducing cost and increase customer service. These transitions often struggle when requirements are vaguely defined or requirements are defined in terms using the business “internal language”. Only through conversation can the new team understand each other’s use of terms in order to be effective and efficient.

Unsuccessful Third Party Logistics (3PL) relationships are typically driven by a few major factors including a lack of clear understanding of the intended operational requirements and a misunderstanding of the client’s requirements. Using a 3PL requires investment in communication, process clarification. Thinking you can throw responsibility for execution over the fence, to the 3PL; is a recipe for failure.

The nature of a 3PL contract requires you to precisely define the expectations. Take the time to ensure the words you are using are commonly understood and that the intended message is delivered. Do not assume that just because you have written it down, the words you have chosen resonate with the recipient.

Talking To An Offshore Technical Team

Many IT projects use offshore coders to support IT development. Again, the needs and requirements are written in the local context and fail to recognize a translation risk by the recipient. Often, the end solution is nowhere near what was expected and we wonder how this occurred. If you closely study the words you chose it becomes clear how words were misinterpreted.

When dealing with a foreign country, you are best served to understand where your contact was educated. If in a British school, recognize word use is very different. It would help you to understand these UK variances on word use to miss these linguistics landmines.


Clearly articulating your message is as much of an art as it is a science. You must read the faces of those you are communicating with and recognize when the message may be misinterpreted. Soliciting a playback of what you have said is a great technique. This will help you understand how your words were digested and how the translation is being applied.

“A good ruler has to learn his world’s language,
and that’s different for every world, the
language you don’t hear just with your ears.”


Frank Herbert 
Science Fiction Writer, Dune

Whether we want to accept it or not, we are all products of our environment. Our past experiences impact, not only our approach to issues, but the words we use to explain them. Listen closely to your communication and make sure your message is being stated clearly and concisely. Do not allow the translation game to sabotage your efforts, getting “lost in translation”. 


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