Lost in translation

I was standing next to a young lady on the tube this morning who was studiously working through a series of questions from a training handbook. She didn’t appear to be experiencing any difficulty with answering the questions; however, I did notice that the first question on the page had remained unanswered. To my surprise she tried to gain my attention by pointing animatedly with her pen. Upon closer observation I saw that she was pointing to the first question on the page and specifically at one word in particular.

Not really understanding the dilemma she was obviously in I asked her if she understood the question. Clearly she did not, but then I realised she didn’t understand me either. It was fairly obvious to me that she could write English judging by the extent of notes she had already written on the page, however we were not making much headway in how we were communicating with each other. She kept pointing to the phrase that was clearly vexing her: ‘on occasion.’ I wasn’t sure what she wanted of me so I responded by providing her with an alternative word that seemed to work with the question she was trying to answer – ‘sometimes’ – and to my great surprise she immediately and without any hesitation whatsoever began writing down her answer to the question.

Turning over the page, she continued to answer the next few questions, again without any difficulty until she reached the next stumbling block and just as before, tried to draw my attention by pointing to a specific word within a question. This time I didn’t hesitate: I read the question, saw the word she was struggling with, which was ‘promptly,’ and now starting to enjoy this early morning challenge responded with the word ‘quickly.’ Just as before, she immediately started to write down her answer to the question.

The tube at this point stopped at Chancery Lane, my designated stop, and with some degree of reluctance I wished the young lady good luck in her training and left her on the tube.

What did I learn from this experience? Two key things:

  • We can all learn anywhere and at any time. This student was diligently working through some form of training material on her way perhaps to college or work.
  • When designing learning or training material it really is fundamentally and critically important that the language we use can be understood by the end users, and this means all end users, whether English is their first language or not.

Why is it that this eastern European did not understand the words ‘occasion’ or ‘promptly’ but did understand ‘sometimes’ and ‘quickly’? I will never find out the answer to this question but it has left me richer from the experience.

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  • Alla Kholmatova

    This could be explained by the lack of a direct translation in some eastern European languages (for example, Russian) for the words like ‘occasion’ and ‘promptly’. While there are of course equivalent expressions, these expressions are not fixed and are likely to change depending on the context. Inexperienced learners of a second language might find this confusing as they tend to try to seek literal translation to their mother tongue.

    On the other hand, the words like ‘sometimes’ or ‘quickly’ have a very precise equivalent translation with a fixed meaning. Therefore they are much easier to understand by non-native speakers.

  • Stephanie Dedhar

    This is a really interesting observation and one that I can relate to having studied languages at university. It’s definitely something to bear in mind when writing training courses to be rolled out globally – it really pays to think about every word you write, as Vanessa’s experience shows that just one word can make a huge difference to overall understanding and can potentially undermine the effectiveness of the training.