How to Converse with a Finn

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With our recent coverage of the recent changes and complexities found in FATCA, we realized that regulations are just part of the story. Accounting professionals have to work with foreign financial professionals, and the possibilities for miscommunication are almost endless. So we sat down with Vigdis Eriksen, founder and CEO, and Matt Heenan, director of client services, at Brooklyn-based Eriksen Translations, to get their insights into international communications.

Among its services, Eriksen Translations helps businesses communicate across borders. Sometimes the differences go beyond simple language barriers. Issues like touching, eye contact and personal space are key, said Heenan. In Finland, listeners are careful to make sure a speaker is finished before responding. In Italy, overlapping conversations are the norm—"almost a battle", said Heenan. Americans would do well to research the customs of any country they do business with.

Even if business partners speak English, Heenan and Eriksen emphasized that doesn't mean everyone speaks it well. When conversing with those who speak English as a second language, they advise pronouncing words carefully and not running them together: "Do-ya wanna eat-a-pizza?" Avoid colloquialisms; Heenan reminds Americans of just how casually they use sports metaphors that won't be understood overseas. So skip "ballpark figure, touching base, in the ninth inning."

Those in the financial sector will find special problems translating jargon. Heenan told about his work trying to create English and Spanish versions of a detailed contract. The English version noted certain provisions were "grandfathered in." The Spanish word for grandfather ("abuelo") didn't have the same meaning, and there was a lot of back-and-forth until both parties—and their attorneys—were satisfied. And that was a piece of cake compared to translating Dodd-Frank provisions.

Heenan also talked about the translation nightmare faced by HSBC, which once used the tagline "Assume Nothing" in its advertising and marketing materials. The word "assume" apparently doesn't translate well—in some languages it essentially became "do nothing." This was hardly a suitable tagline for a bank.

And don't even try to translate "synergy."

Some errors are amusing, but others can be disastrous. Heenan gave an example of a reporter for the China News Service in Hong Kong who wrote about what might happen if the Chinese currency appreciated. The subtleties of her story were lost in translation, and by the time Bloomberg picked it up, the "might" disappeared, and billions of dollars were traded on what markets thought the Chinese government was definitely doing.

Even the communications vehicle can make a difference. Eriksen and Heenan cited the National Public Radio report "Selling Health Care To California's Latinos Got Lost In Translation." It noted that although Latinos are heavy Internet users, they were reluctant to sign up for something as important as government-sponsored insurance through a website. They wanted a more personal, concrete connection: an address or at least a phone number.

However, Heenan stressed that with the right planning, U.S. companies can translate their services and reach out to new customers. Eriksen Translations helped a financial services company whose insurance arm was working on employee benefits for a food distributor that needed information presented in Spanish. When everyone worked together, Eriksen Translations was able to translate and present insurance content in an appropriate way. "As a result, the program had record sign-ups for supplementary life policies."

In short, to use an untranslatable phrase, they hit it out of the park.


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