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International Business: Multilingual workers can be an asset only if used properly

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, right, and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton seen during a news conference after their talks, in Moscow, Russia, Oct. 13, 2009.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, right, and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton seen during a news conference after their talks, in Moscow, Russia, Oct. 13, 2009.
Associated Press

Bridges are incredibly useful and help many people reach important destinations quickly and easily. However, bridges can also be dangerous when misused, and exceeding a bridge's maximum load capacity can obviously result in disaster.

Similarly, bilingual workers can be incredibly beneficial and can help bridge the gaps many organizations must cross to expand internationally. In fact, some have partially credited the success of Utah's export sector, as highlighted in a recent report by the Brookings Institution, to the language skills many Utahns gain while serving two-year religious missions abroad. However, like use of physical bridges with maximum load capacities, use of bilingual workers as cultural bridges can also be dangerous if their capacities are not properly assessed and respected.

Like Utah, the U.S. State Department also has a remarkably high concentration of workers with second-language skills. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton experienced significant embarrassment in 2009 when the State Department did not understand and respect the limitations of some bilingual employees.

Clinton attempted to symbolize a "resetting" of the U.S.-Russian relations to Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov with a gift-wrapped red button labeled "Reset" in English and "Peregruzka" in Russian. Unfortunately, "peregruzka" means "overcharge" or "overload." The Russian word for "reset" is actually "pereZAgruzka" (emphasis added) or, more correctly, “перезагрузка” in the Cyrillic script used in Russia.

With cameras rolling, Clinton ironically assured Lavrov that the State Department "worked hard to get the right Russian word." To Clinton's dismay, Lavrov immediately pointed out the error to her and to the global audience. Oops!

The U.S. State Department has access to some of the world's finest translators and interpreters. Unfortunately, instead of working through its professional translation department, the State Department consulted an employee who was neither a native speaker of Russian nor a professional linguist. The translation was later "checked" by another employee who was also a non-native speaker of Russian.

Translation disasters like this occur all too often when bilingual employees are utilized as if they were trained, specialized, native-speaking professional translators. In fact, websites like list new blunders like this every single day. Despite the efforts of such popular blooper-spotting websites, many organizations still mistakenly believe that bilingual ability automatically qualifies one as a translator.

When people learn I work for a translation company in Utah, many of them exclaim, "That must be the perfect place to have a language services company since you can use all those former Mormon missionaries to perform translation!"

Well, returned missionaries can be an advantage in this industry, but not always for the reasons most people think — not automatically for actual translation. Most missionaries are native English speakers who learn general conversational skills in another language. The only specialized vocabulary missionaries master is religious. If these missionaries come home expecting to work in translation, they soon run up against the following industry standards: the best translators work into their native language, they specialize in only a few subjects (such as business or technical writing) and they acquire fine-tuned skills that non-professionally trained translators simply do not have.

An experience from the life of Chad Lewis illustrates the limitations of missionary language skills. Lewis learned Chinese as a missionary in Taiwan and then played football first at Brigham Young University and later in the NFL. In his book, Surround Yourself with Greatness, he recalls the time he provided color commentary on Chinese radio for the 2003 Super Bowl.

"I prepared a chart full of Chinese terms that I kept in front of me the whole game," wrote Lewis. "I could refer to that chart at anytime to help me describe the action. But when I was excited, I would revert to my missionary vocabulary. I would say things such as, 'I testify that Tom Brady can throw a true pass!' "

Some expatriates and missionaries fit a different profile and do indeed return from foreign countries to translate and interpret at very high levels. For example, 20 years ago, Barry Slaughter Olsen served as a young Spanish-speaking missionary in Southern California. Upon returning home, he dramatically improved his language skills, gained interpreting skills and launched a conference interpreting career in the Washington, D.C., area. He has interpreted for many Latin American heads of state and for many prominent U.S. officials, including former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. Olsen now chairs the nation's only graduate degree program for conference interpreting at the renowned Monterey Institute of International Studies.

Other former expatriates and missionaries decide, as I did, to enter the language service industry with a focus on management, marketing or technology. Even more use their basic language skills and newly acquired cultural awareness to strengthen other industries internationally. Anecdotally, the advantages of such a multilingual work force are exemplified in a number of successful international projects run by Brigham Young University's business and engineering students, many of whom gained initial language skills as missionaries.

A multilingual work force is a great asset to any industry if used properly. Actor Clint Eastwood's character, Dirty Harry, famously said, "A man's got to know his limitations." Following this advice, a key to avoiding disaster in international business is to use multilingual skills appropriately and to know a bilingual employee's limits or "maximum load capacity" for bridging cultural gaps.

Adam Wooten is director of translation services at Lingotek. He also teaches a course on translation technology at BYU. E-mail: . Follow him on Twitter at AdamWooten..