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Technical communicators need to work effectively across cultures and languages.

Ron McFarland has been working in Japan for over 40 years, and he's spent most of that time in international sales, providing sales management training, and expanding sales worldwide. I asked Ron about communicating effectively across cultures and languages.

Let's start with an introduction. How long have you worked internationally?

I’m an American that has lived well over half my life in Japan, 44 years as of next March (2024).

In California, I studied business and became interested in international business (graduated in 1972). With the trade between Japan and California, I started studying Japanese.

That led me to Japan in 1976. In my first year in Japan, I taught English to business people. A year later, I attended graduate school in international business.

I graduated in 1980 and soon started working for Isuzu Motors. Over many of the 21 years in that company, I gave vehicle sales seminars mostly in Africa, the Middle East, Latin America, Southeast Asia, South Asia and some European countries.

I left Isuzu in 2021 and joined Unika Company Limited. My job was to develop overseas sales markets by presenting at exhibitions. I established distributors mostly in Europe and throughout the United States through those exhibitions.

I retired from Unika in 2018. Currently, I write articles for The Open Organization, give presentations on my travels and give speeches on global business development.

I have worked internationally all those years in Japan and to this day.

International business communication covers a lot of topic areas. Is it just about translation, understanding other cultures, or something else?

To me, international communication is providing information across borders, cultures and languages. This includes people with different religions, races and other ethnic differences.

It is not just translations. Globally, just smiling at someone provides information. If the other party notices the smile, happiness has been communicated. That could be true for a wide range of body language. Language translation is one form of communication only.

Cultural understanding can be very helpful. We all have assumptions, and misunderstands could lead to communication errors.

All people have individual personalities, not just a national culture. Therefore, successful communication is very person-by-person specific. I have found the Myer-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) very helpful in communicating individually. This assessment can be applied globally outside specific cultures. Observing and noticing certain behavior and identifying personality preferences, I can better communicate with that person.

For written communication that will be translated, is automated translation software "good enough" to do the job, or is a skilled translator still a valuable asset?

I worked on one English to Japanese translation project. We used Google Translate and DeepL. There were over 200 English statements (to be answered as like me or not like me) that had to be translated into Japanese. Here are the steps we went through:

  1. The statement was translated from English to Japanese using Google Translate.
  2. Then, that same Japanese statement was translated back into English using DeepL (“back-translation”).
  3. After that, I checked the two English statements (original and back-translation) to see if the basic meaning was conveyed. I ignored small phrasing differences. If the overall gist of the statement was correct, I gave the statement an “OK”, and we considered that Japanese to be fine. If something was strange between the two statements, I gave it an NG (no good) and a reason why. Of all the statements, only around 20 statements (10%) were NG.
  4. For the NG statements, a professional native Japanese writer and I had a Zoom meeting to review each NG statement. We looked at the back-translated English and the Japanese statements. From there we decided on the ideal Japanese statement.
  5. Afterward, to better analyze the response of those 200 statements, I asked Chat GTP to put all the statements into categories. It came up with five groupings of all 200 or so statements. I looked at those groupings and the statements within each group. They were pretty close when matching grouping to each statement. That saved a lot of time too.

I think Google Translate or DeepL can speed up the translation process, but back-translating activities like above are still required.

I do a lot of texting in Japanese. Mostly, I just write in Japanese (laptop), but if I receive a long text message on my smartphone, I just use DeepL and read the English. That saves me a lot of time, particularly when there is a Japanese (Kanji) character I’m not sure of. I often have to clean up the DeepL Japanese translation, as it seems a little impolite.

Written communication differs from spoken communication, especially internationally. What have you observed about written vs spoken communication?

Written communication and spoken communication both have strengths and weaknesses. I like to use both.

I would start by considering the complexity of the content and how it could best be conveyed. What are the communication objectives and what is to be achieved? Is the content presented just knowledge or is it a skill to be learned and perfected? Teaching skills and just providing knowledge are different. Therefore, the teaching methods are different as well.

Then, I would take a look at my budget and presentation value (money, time and participant’s benefit).

If I have (1) no money at all, (2) just a few minutes of my time and (3) an unimportant topic, working through emails, blogs, and so on would probably be all you can do.

If I have an unlimited amount of time and money, and an extremely important topic to present, I would start with email communication distributed to all participants to develop joint meeting goals. From there, I would develop an online meeting agenda. Then, with that agenda, I would have online recorded meetings to discuss and finalized the goals. All attendants should attend the meeting and view the recording afterward. After that, I would prepare an in-person meeting agenda and distribute it to all participants, confirm receipt and get their feedback and suggestions. That would follow with an in-person professionally videotaped meeting. Lastly, I would write minutes of the meeting, distribute it to all participants and confirm receipt.

Between those two extremes (budget, time, topic importance), the ideal communication method should be determined.

“In-person” is more expensive, but may be necessary depending on the situation. If you have to convince someone to do something, meeting them in person might be necessary. In “remote” situations, context and underline feelings may be lost. With remote learning becoming more advanced (technical advancement and our skill level improvement in communicating remotely), this will become more important in the future. It will not totally replace in-person meetings, but remote meetings will support in-person meetings greatly and make them more productive and efficient.

When writing for an international audience, what things do technical writers need to focus on?

I have struggled with completely fluent English speakers’ translating and interpreting when they have no technical knowledge of the material. In the Ivory Coast, one case of translating and interpreting a sales training manual from English to French completely broke down. She was a native French speaker and fluent in English but was totally unusable because she had no vehicle knowledge. Technical knowledge of translators is critical.

I would be very careful with technical terms, as you might not know the expertise level of the readers. A link to the meaning or a synonym might be helpful.

I would avoid local expressions in the writing as much as possible. If you notice the language of an American university student who has never traveled abroad and the language of a European university student using English as a second language, you will know my concern.

For technical writing, I’m not sure if translation into a foreign language would be helpful. Depending on the technical subject written about, most readers should have a pretty high English reading ability. I noticed this in Isuzu Motors. The product development researchers had high English reading skills. Even in the best cases, something might be lost when working through the native language only. In Japan, many large corporations require both English and the local language be prepared side-by-side in all documents.

Thanks to Ron for sharing these excellent international communication insights with us. To learn more, also read Ron's interview about communicating across cultures at our partner website, Coaching Buttons.