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29May

Divided by a Common Language

One of my guilty pleasures is reading paranoid political and military thrillers. One of the kings of the genre is Lee Child, whose hero, Jack Reacher, is an ex-military drifter who roams the United States, righting wrongs and saving the oppressed, usually with a maximum body count, gallons of strong coffee, and plenty of derring-do along the way. Reacher is like a distillation of American cinematic strong-men, from Charles Bronson to Sylvester Stallone and Bruce Willis.


Surprisingly, given the setting and topic, Lee Child is British. As an author writing across cultural boundaries, his ability to capture the details of Americana is impressive, but once in a while he slips up. In his book Running Blind, (published as The Visitor in the UK), two characters are in the FBI shooting range at Quantico, Virginia and put on “ear defenders” and in The Enemy – set before Reacher has left the military – Reacher and another MP are searching the grounds of a military base for a “yogurt pot” that a killer left behind. These two phrases are dead giveaways that the author is British: An American author would have talked about “ear muffs” or “ear protection” and “yogurt cartons” or “containers.” “Yogurt pot” is itself an odd mix of the British term “yoghurt pot” with an American spelling.

Often, companies assume that English is English, or at least that their customers won’t mind the little differences – or that it is simply a matter of adding, or omitting, the ‘u’ in ‘color’. For many kinds of content, that is probably true, but for others, the differences matter. For example, imagine an ad telling someone “Don’t be a sook.” This would work in Australia, New Zealand, and Atlantic Canada, where sook means a wimp or crybaby. However, this would be impenetrable in the rest of the English-speaking world. And despite Harry Potter and Monty Python introducing Americans to phrases such as prat, wanker, and whinging, using other British terms such as cockwomble (a complete idiot), skint (broke), and bog roll (toilet paper) will leave audiences elsewhere a trifle agog and at sea.

English speakers often share these funny little phrases, but they show how difficult it can be to find the right words and phrases in a language with a significant presence in over half of the world’s economies and 1.5 billion speakers. In 1991 Swedish manufacturer Electrolux famously proclaimed “Nothing sucks like an Electrolux” for the British market, where the slogan was a straight-forward claim about the power of the vacuum. Apocryphal claims and countless conference presentations to the contrary, the ads never actually appeared in the United States, where the same phrase would mean that the brand is the worst it could be.
 

All joking aside, these differences show how important local knowledge is about how language is used in the markets you do business in. Good LSPs know when and where they need to pay special attention and where their clients face risk from languages such as English, French, and Spanish that have a wide distribution and a diverse set of speakers. Content creators need to be aware of the kinds of issues they may face and the need to work with in-country translators, particularly for marketing content.

Despite worries about American cultural hegemony, these regional differences are only becoming more important over time. Brands that used to settle for just “English” may find that they need to plan for several variants of English, just as they have had to do with Spanish and Portuguese for many years. In planning for global content, the little details matter, just as they do in Childs’ fiction, where the few stray Britishisms his editors missed break the carefully crafted illusion of his fiction. 

About the Author

Arle  Lommel

Arle Lommel

Senior Analyst

Focuses on language technology, artificial intelligence, translation quality, and overall economic factors impacting globalization

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