From the corporate corner: Let’s tell our story 6

Meet Lori Thicke: founder of Lexcelera and the non-profit organization Translators Without Borders. In this guest post from the corporate corner, Lori speaks on why translation is under-appreciated and what we can do about it.


New York City at the height of the Ebola crisis in West Africa. I am speaking about language to a roomful of high-level executives from the largest aid groups, convened as part of a series of UN focus meetings.

I cover communications in the Ebola crisis, and how utterly unhelpful it is to tell people how to avoid Ebola in a language they don’t understand. After all, you wouldn’t go to France with public health posters in English: why would you do so in Liberia?

Afterwards, the Executive Director of one of the world’s top aid organizations (you’d know the name) says to me, “We really hadn’t thought about that.”

Hello, what? You didn’t think that it was important to talk to a rural villager in her own language? That language wouldn’t matter much, even when you’re trying to stop an epidemic as perilous to the world as Ebola?

Here’s a news flash: communicating in the wrong language is not communicating at all.

Lori Thicke: CEO and founder of Lexcelera

Humanitarian groups not getting that simple fact is the main reason I founded the translation charity Translators without Borders. Yet the same ignorance about how important language is also bedevils anyone who earns a living in the translation industry.

Before Translators without Borders, I founded a language company, which I operate to this day. Lexcelera began life in Paris, France, and we have a few small offices now on three continents. But operating in a different world, in business, in communicating B2B and B2C, we still face the same issues as in the humanitarian sphere: translation is wildly, crazily undervalued.

It may seem strange to make the leap from humanitarian translations to the business world, but I believe the same core problem affects both: people outside our industry, whether nonprofits or companies, think they can get by just some token translation. I mean, have you ever seen how most companies do their international customer support sites? You might see the menu items in a few main languages, but the information itself is in English.

The assumption there, of course, is that everyone speaks English. Talk about wishful thinking!

In the commercial sense, this wishful thinking translates into undervaluing our services – and that in turn leads to commodity (read low) pricing. This commoditization springs from the idea that what we do isn’t worth very much, so any old provider will do as long as the cost is cheap enough.

I can’t think of another industry where prices go down, year after year.

This may be a contrarian view, but I see the huge investments that are being made to improve machine translation (MT) as the one acknowledgement that speaking to people in their own language is the only way to go, and that technology is needed because there are too many languages and too much content.

Wait, investing millions and maybe billions in machine translation is actually recognition of the value of our work? Yes, that’s what I believe. But as I said, that is no doubt a contrarian view.

In any case, MT is really an aside to the bigger issue: the lack of recognition of the value that professionals bring to multilingual communication.

I believe the only way we can fix this is by telling a better story. A compelling story. Somewhere along the line we stopped being visible. When was the last time you saw a translator in a movie? In the press? We are one of the professions you don’t see or hear a lot about. And that hurts us.

We need to take control of the narrative.

ProZ.com and other professional bodies could help here by relentlessly passing the message that in our increasingly borderless world, companies need our services in order to communicate better – and to sell better.

Our trade associations could make headlines with stories about how people are more likely to buy products and services when addressed in their own language and how companies grow more when they get language right.

These stories could be backed up by hard numbers, compelling statistics that tell the story of happy customers and engaged employees. For example, the Common Sense Advisory tells us that people are 6 times more likely (duh) to buy from a website when addressed in their own language.

Citing facts like this can make the case that translation is not a commodity but an investment where quality pays.

I believe we need to tell our story as publicly as we can to raise awareness and appreciation for our craft. Translators need to be linguists, they need to be subject matter experts and they need, almost above all, to be good writers. This is a unique and valuable skillset that allows professionals to craft a translation that does the job it’s supposed to do: communicate a message that will be understood.

Now, is that so hard to understand?