IT Business
An idiot’s guide to idioms


Business is increasingly carried out across international borders, which can lead to language difficulties in commercial communications. Could machine translation help, asks David Neal.

IT Business

On a recent overseas press trip I found myself spending time with so many foreign nationals that I joked that we were like the UN. Sitting around the table were Swedes, Finns, Spaniards, plucky Brits, and someone from Holland. It was like taking part in the Eurovision Song Contest without the burning desire to find a window and hurl yourself through it.

Under such circumstances, I am usually surprised by two things the almost strategic rudeness of the French, and the ability of non-English speakers to keep up with the conversation. In any of their own countries I would struggle to ask where the nearest toilet was, and even then would probably end up suggesting that their mother was known for having inappropriate friendships with horses.

Of course I did do some languages at school and can remember a few key foreign phrases for example, if you were ever in France and fancied a toasted cheese and ham sandwich, you would be happy to have me in your party, and if we went to Germany and desired a first class return train ticket to the old church, well, we’d be laughing. But for most other requirements I would have to rely on the tried and tested methods of talking more loudly and pointing.

So, given my own linguistical lackings I was worried about my multinational peers having to constantly communicate in an alien tongue. Out of concern I turned to one of the French journalists and asked: “Verily, thou art adept at comprehending the dialogue in this vestibule this eve. Should I ever visit your domicile I should be so ignorant that I would be affrighted of being seen as churlish…Now if you’ll excuse me I am off to perform my ablutions.” He may have been tired, which would explain why he did not respond.

Now I am back home, I would like to take our conversation further. Sadly, unless I am prepared to use one of the online translation tools, I will have to correspond with him in the Queen’s English, though I suspect this might put him at a disadvantage.

Online translation tools will let you down faster than a drunken chauffeur. Machine translation remains an impossible challenge on the internet. Let’s look at an example. “Hello, how was your flight back?” changes to the French, “Bonjour, allait-il comment votre dos de vol?” which means nothing to me, but translates back into English as, “Hello, did go how your back of flight?” This sort of meaningless correspondence has no place in business communications.

Which is why firms will always have to pay for human translation whenever they need to correspond with overseas partners and customers. Listening to vendor’s muddy explanations of their products, it is obvious that a lot of people find it hard to communicate clearly even in their own language. Only a fool would ever rely on machine translation, especially if there is any nuance in the message or business depending on the result.