Bimbo Banter

Watch That Translation

  • Crisis
  • December 1, 2014
  • by Merrie Spaeth

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What happens when a word isn’t exactly lost in translation but doesn’t quite make it through the language barrier; sort of like when my daughter’s horse would take a jump – but knock down a few poles.

I was coaching an executive who had to explain why what should have been a routine operation blew up. It didn’t just go uncompleted; it flamed out spectacularly and publicly. He explained that they had successfully performed the operation thousands of time but this “was an exceptional incident.” “Exceptional?” That usually means “you did a great job.” Occasionally it can mean, “This was the exception to the rule.” That still doesn’t explain whether this is a good or bad thing. Trying to be helpful, one of his colleagues tried, “This was an isolated incident.” They began to pat themselves on the back. “Hold on,” I said. Now I understand what you mean, but the perception is still troubling.

It may be an isolated incident to the speaker and company, but to those who experienced the problem, it’s their whole world. Remember, the Spaeth strategy begins with asking “Who’s my audience? and what does the word or number mean to them?” This is also the difference between education and communication.

The company originally wanted to educate customers and took the attitude that they should understand just how many operations the company performed and why this was unusual and therefore not predictive of future behavior. Good communication advises to take ownership of the problem, explain the aspiration and commit to fixing it. Thus, the better quote would be, “Our goal is 100% satisfaction and completion 100% of the time. We didn’t meet that goal, but we are committed to continuous improvement and will learn from what happened this time. Further, we’ll keep you informed and here’s how to give us feedback. We want to listen to you.” 

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