Anglo-Russian business and the ‘Cervix of Hamon effect’

Syntax matters. In these “sanctioned times” it is doubly vital that the nuances of meaning originating in Russian or in English be as fully congruent, tuned and replicated with cultural and contextual relevance when reborn into the other language.

The manner with which Russian ideas are presented and converted into English (and equally for English to Russian) should definitely be prioritized by risk managers as a significant factor to address; it is the carrier enabling or disabling the profits and success of even the very best proposals, positions, IPO’s, films or products.

In doing business with Russia since the 1970s I have regularly witnessed the neglect demonstrated by both English and Russian entities in taking the ‘crafting steps’ necessary to achieve clear, understandable and easily digested bilingual communications, often with unintended, costly consequences. In these times when commerce is under not only competitive but added political pressures, it is even more vital to get it right.

Recently, a Russian agro-holding sent out English language proposals describing their various pork products. Their time, intent, reputation and funds for this effort were wasted, no results. One reason, among several, was translation failures. One that stood out; in Russian a very popular cut is known as “neck of pork”, in English that is a pork shoulder, but what came out from the linguistically challenged translator was “Cervix of Hamon”. How the Spanish term appeared is a mystery, but even that was misspelled with an ‘H’ instead of the correct ‘J’. The neck part is a bit clearer as matters uterine and cervical are often discussed privately and publicly between ladies even on mass transit, and the term ‘neck’ is now often understood to refer to that part of the anatomy.

A US/UK global financial software firm opened representative offices in Russia several years ago and quickly filled the initial market void of an eager clientele. After the first mad rush of sales stabilized, the firm saw that it was time to introduce longer term policies, programs, product support work and selling-up schemes. A tremendous volume of material was ordered translated into Russian, in fact their entire English language library of technical manuals, policies, management & sales training, customer support and so on. When this mass of documentation was delivered to their Russian subsidiary the reaction was shock, disappointment and confusion. It became embarrassingly apparent that the local representation were not asked or consulted by headquarters on the quality, syntax, tone and subtleties of the Russian language as it applied to their efforts. The assumption was that the Russian mirror version would be as effective in such simply converted form.The translation was performed by a world famous company that professionally translates documents in 60+ languages for thousands of clients worldwide. Who would question their care, focus and expertise? It seems the resulting work was indeed edited – once - by a British national living in the UK who once studied Russian. There was no way that sort of quality control could hope to determine if the work performed met the intent, comprehension and socio-cultural terminology criteria that are so necessary at the sharp end of business, in a qualitatively demanding Russia, for today’s Russians.

An assistant shows the mock "reset" button which U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton handed to Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov during a bilateral meeting in Geneva March 6, 2009. (Reuters/Fabrice Coffrini)

On a far more serious note Sergey Lavrov, the Russian Foreign Minister on a number of occasions made statements in Russian in both video and press interviews concerning the Ukraine situation, which were then translated into English and made their way into the non-Russian media. Listening to him in Russian, then reading what had morphed into English, while similar, in no way communicated the meaning, subtlety, tone or intent that this erudite respected professional had made quite clearly in Russian. The escalating effects such unintended misunderstandings are having in both the media and foreign audiences on both sides are distressingly evident – and with responsible, crafted care could have been defused. In many cases such dissonances in translation give rise to interpretations which are more easily spin doctored to embrace wholly unintended viewpoints. Language is after all a wavelength that must be carefully tuned to be transmitted and received clearly.

Recently the Russian film Leviathan won an award at Cannes. The film was in Russian, but the tremendous care and linguistic artistry used in producing the subtitles made a key difference yet largely unremarked. I learned that they went through several potential translation companies, before finding the best, a specialized niche translation boutique in St Petersburg. Oddly enough, being pound wise and penny foolish is a common trait worldwide when recreating ideas into another language. If the executives responsible for Leviathan hadn’t made the herculean efforts to find exactly the perfect translator/subtitler, and simply trusted their initial “professional translator”, there would have been no Cannes, no award, no international sales; there would, however, have been a gaggle of very unhappy investors furious over the effect a misspent 0.5 percent of the production budget could have had. A lesson hopefully learned well and in depth.

The number of true linguist-artist-professionals in the Russian-English/English-Russian translation field can be counted on half of one hand. For most purposes the many translation companies working in the market produce a reasonable product, bearing in mind that they translate dozens of languages; this serves a general purpose. However, it is best to find those firms which do nothing but English-Russian, and specialize in-depth, as only they are capable of taking the necessary care to produce those key communications in another language. Ensure that the language professionals are composed of native speaker teams, that they are familiar with your business terminology environment, and that they have native speakers editing (and making key usage recommendations to you), with a final specialized proofreading also by a native speaker to guarantee the translated message looks or sounds like it was originally created in that language. The best, interestingly enough, are not to be found in Moscow, but in centers like St Petersburg, where lower overheads permit the more costly attention to craft and quality. The extra money paid to get what is needed is negligible, compared to the costs of a failed project or ignored business.

Paul Goncharoff for RT.

Paul Goncharoff, Chairman, Ethics and Membership Committees for the Organization of Corporate Directors and Management, Russian Federation.

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.