Project Managers: How can cultural competency skills help us work smarter? (Part II)
By: MTM LinguaSoft-
In last month’s post, I explained why translation project managers could benefit from cross-cultural awareness training. Now I want to give a few examples from our own experiences here at MTM LinguaSoft of the kinds of situations in which cultural awareness can be helpful.
Scenario: A freelance translator sends a CV through your recruiting portal. But your request for professional references is refused. Why?
Trust in a business relationship develops differently in different cultures. Americans tend to start new relationships fulling trusting their partner, but each lapse or breach erodes that trust. In other cultures, trust is never just assumed; it must be earned over time. A translator from might feel that providing contact information to a stranger could jeopardize a valuable relationship with a steady client. If reference checks present problems, asking for translation tests or initial smaller jobs may be a better approach.
In fact, our emphasis on references demonstrates a point about U.S. culture. The U.S. egalitarian/individualist culture values accomplishments over credentials. A graduate degree or certification is good, but “you are only as good as your last job.” Some cultures put more stock in certificates and diplomas than prior job performance.
Scenario: You send a project to a translator with the note “If you have any questions, don’t hesitate to ask.” Why is this troublesome?
Attitudes towards respect and authority can differ radically. In some cultures, requesting clarification can feel disrespectful because it implies that the instructions were poorly presented. Conversely, in the US, we feel that it is disrespectful to “micromanage” and over-explain, so we assume our team understands unless they say otherwise. Simply asking the translator to request clarification is a mistake. It’s always better to issue clear and detailed instructions, even if it feels like “micromanaging.”
Scenario: A trusted translator unexpectedly misses a deadline. How can you evaluate whether they had a good reason for doing so?
Values and beliefs about work/life balance are not universal. Some cultures value work over private life (“live in order to work”) while other cultures take the opposite approach (“work in order to live”). Don’t try to judge whether the translator’s reasons for the delay were legitimate. That is an evaluation we cannot make, and should not even try. We can evaluate how quickly a partner alerts us to the situation so we can take compensatory measures. With each project, make it clear you need to know about potential delays as soon as possible. If you have concerns about meeting a deadline on a large project, it is helpful to establish reasonable milestones and partial deliveries.
Scenario: You receive a translation from a linguist who is a valued specialist in his field, but the proofreader deems it unacceptable.
Reconciling the opinions of translators and proofreaders is more labor intensive in some language pairs than in others. One reason is the difference between “high-context” and “low-context” cultures. Members of “high-context” cultures are more likely to incorporate background knowledge to understand communications; “low-context” cultures, like Germany or the U.S., assume that meaning is inherent in words alone. The languages of high-context cultures, like Korea and Japan, employ a variety of “registers” or linguistic patterns reflecting the relative status of speaker and listener. Disputes over grammar and vocabulary may arise because the translator and the proofreader actually hold different ideas about the context of the translation. It’s your responsibility to ensure that team members know as much as possible about the context and audience for a translation before work begins.
When a conflict arises, try to consider whether a difference in cultural norms and expectations is making it worse. Adjusting your thinking to accommodate different perspectives is more than just politeness – it’s an important means for avoiding problems before they happen and putting them into perspective when they do.