What are you thinking about?

The absolutely best promo I’ve ever seen regarding language confusion is the one with the cute, naïve and not too smart German coastguard: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6zkZ3f8DnKs

Within just a few seconds this short clip makes it clear that even the smallest of details can make a world of difference when it comes to understanding a message in a foreign language.

With regard to English, most of us probably have more than just a basic understanding of the language; we studied it for several years in high school, we watch countless American series and British detectives, play video and computer games in English, use English at work and maybe even travel to English-speaking countries every now and then and use the language in a real setting.

That doesn’t make us native speakers, however. It doesn’t mean that we understand all the nuances of the language, or have a wide-ranging vocabulary. Sure, I can read a newspaper or watch the news in English, have a polite conversation with a stranger at a reception or write a comprehensible e-mail to an English-speaking client. But don’t ask me to explain to a plumber what exactly is wrong with my drainpipe. Don’t expect me to understand each individual clause of the terms and conditions in a legal contract. And most of all, don’t taste any food I cooked following an English recipe, because I might have slightly misunderstood the instructions.

Understanding the key messages in written or spoken text in a language other than your own can be pretty challenging. That’s something any company should consider when entering a new market and pondering the question of whether to translate or not to translate. The decision not to translate and to use English in every market might save time and money. But it’s tricky and risky too, since part of the target audience might be lost right from the start – simply because they don’t understand or because they don’t want to put any effort into trying to understand.

Not translating means building a language barrier and creating a gap between the company and its target groups that are hard to overcome. Carefully designed websites will remain unread, expensive glossy magazines will end up in the waste paper basket in no time and carefully phrased messages will miss the mark completely.

So why not just SMILE?