English is currently the world’s most commonly taught foreign language, and it is so widely spoken that it is often referred to as the lingua franca of the modern era. A recent English Proficiency Index report on how and where English proficiency is developing around the world concluded that fewer than a quarter of the world’s English speakers are now native speakers of the language.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that people prefer to buy in their own language. The Common Sense Advisory published a Can’t Read, Won’t Buy report in 2014 on how translation affects the online customer experience and E-commerce growth, and concluded that more local-language content throughout the customer experience leads to a greater likelihood of purchase. This motivates global businesses to localise their message for different markets and fuels their collaboration with the language services industry.
But how well do companies in countries where English is not the primary language localise their content for the 330–380 million people who speak English as their first language?
I am not referring to the differences between the variants of English in the United Kingdom, the United States, Australia, New Zealand, Ireland, anglophone Canada and South Africa. What I would like to call attention to is content written in English or translated into English by non-native speakers of English.
The concept of “World Englishes” by Professor Braj Kachru illustrates the use of English in today’s world through three concentric circles: the Inner Circle, the Outer Circle and the Expanding Circle.
The Inner Circle represents the traditional historical regions where English is used as a primary language: the United Kingdom, the United States, Australia, New Zealand, Ireland, anglophone Canada and South Africa. They are said to be “norm-providing”, which means that English language norms are developed in these countries.
The Outer Circle of English, created by the expansion of the British Empire in Asia and Africa, does not use English as a native tongue, but as a lingua franca between ethnic and language groups. This circle includes India, Nigeria, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Malaysia, Tanzania, Kenya, non-anglophone South Africa and the Philippines.
The Expanding Circle encompasses countries where English plays no historical role but is widely used as a medium of international communication. This includes the Netherlands and the Nordic countries, China, Russia, Japan, South Korea, Egypt and Indonesia, with the estimated number of users ranging from 100 million to one billion. The Expanding Circle is said to be “norm-dependent” because it relies on the standards set by native speakers in the Inner Circle.
However, I have been pondering how much pressure the practices of the commercial translation world are putting on that “norm provision”.
The entire localisation industry works on the principle of human language experts translating from a foreign language into their mother tongue. This practice is deemed to result in the most culturally accurate target text, with idiomatic fluency and a reading experience that most resembles that of the original. Except when it comes to translating into English.
There are simply not enough native speakers of English who are able to translate from world languages into English. This becomes even more of a problem when it comes to minority languages. The English speakers in Kachru’s Inner Circle are notoriously lacking in foreign language skills, and those who do study languages and translation have 150 foreign languages to cover. This imbalance leads to a lot of the foreign language content generated in the Expanding Circle countries being translated into English by the natives of those countries.
Many of these non-native translators are good at this – I speak from personal experience as a Finn who has translated into English a fair bit. Our translations can absolutely be fit for purpose; we understand the source text perfectly and can render it accurately in English.
But our translations into English are rarely on a par with those of our equally qualified native English peers. When it comes to compelling sales arguments, use of subtle humour and the ability to generate the feeling of exclusivity, our nuanced persuasion skills in the target language can fail us. Had the communication been taking place in person, our native English audience would undoubtedly have made allowances for this. With written content, it is not so easy.
Everyone knows that poorly written English affects customer perceptions. In the modern digital context, where consumers are wary of spam and phishing, poor English scares customers away and makes an otherwise good website look like a scam. But not everyone appreciates that decent albeit less-than-fluent English written by non-native speakers also shapes the customer experience.
When I was trying to find information online about the impact that non-native English writing has in our world today, I came across articles demonstrating how your earnings in an English-speaking country are affected by your level of spoken English, how a strong foreign accent can affect your career prospects, and how poor grammar can spoil your chances – even on an online dating site.
But it was hard to find information on what effect English content written by non-native speakers of English has on business and on the customer behaviour of native English speakers. There seems to be a lack of research in the premium consumer market into the response of native English readers to sales material, instructions or information leaflets that have clearly been translated from a foreign language into English. These texts may not be riddled with spelling mistakes or odd choices of words, but the reader still gets a sense that “something is not quite right”. Something jars in the way the information is presented or simply makes the reader feel alienated rather than included.
It can be challenging to develop English translation solutions that result in high quality content, but the least we can do is try. The first step would be to take an honest look in the mirror. Surprisingly many non-native speakers of English assume they have the right and the competence required to assess the level of English they produce, either themselves or at their company. Nordic nationals seem particularly presumptuous in this regard. Why is this the case? That right belongs to our “norm-providing” friends. What might seem like a decent English translation of a product brochure in Finland might not cut the mustard in the countries of the Inner Circle.
Like the rest of us, the 330–380 million native speakers of English in our global village deserve to be addressed in their true mother tongue. Like the rest of us, they value access to information in their own idiomatic language and prefer to buy products where the quality of the documentation reflects the quality of the product. Let’s start serving native English speakers in native English.