by Richard Peters
We live in a world in which the “corporate” tag seems to pop up in just about any setting. It’s something we’re all so familiar with, I wonder how many of us have actually spent any time thinking about what this innocent adjunct signifies. Corporate health, corporate housing, corporate communications: isn’t it worth reflecting for a moment how it is that so many of the fundamentals – health, housing, even the act of communication itself – have somehow become “corporate”?
As a translator specialised in corporate communications, it’s not a question I can avoid if I am to make sense of what I do. Indeed, I don’t think it would be going too far to say that pinning down this small word makes all the difference. To illustrate the point, I want to compare two types of translator: those who translate novels, short stories and the like – “literary” translators – and those who make their living from translating corporate communications, “corporate” translators.
Now, what are the concerns of literary translators? They are, I believe, essentially linguistic in nature: these translators do everything in their power to faithfully replicate every nuance of meaning and to do justice to what the writer of the text they are translating is aiming to achieve. They are free to take the text on its own merit and on its own terms – they translate, we might say, for the writer.
Of course corporate translators face the same linguistic challenges. And yet they also have to deal with a whole new aspect that literary translators do not have to address at all: the knowledge that they are dealing with a text written with a very specific purpose in mind – that of conveying a corporate message that has been carefully crafted by a company, institution or public body to evoke a particular response in its target readership. Every care must be taken to relay that message in a coherent manner. As such, corporate translators’ concerns, focusing as they do on a corporate message and its impact, extend far beyond the purely linguistic, and it would be much more accurate to say that the corporate translator writes primarily not for the writer, but for the intended audience.
This difference in approach, ultimately, is all down to that word “corporate” – the fact that in one instance we’re talking about writers as individuals putting forward their own ideas in their own individual style, and in the other about a piece in which the writer acts primarily as a spokesperson for a larger entity, the corporation. This more than anything else is what distinguishes the work and translation practice of a translator active in corporate communications.
Where does that leave translators of corporate communications in concrete terms? Undoubtedly, it adds an additional layer of complexity to their work, since it necessitates a thorough understanding of the corporate message to be conveyed. This encompasses not only the immediate aim of that message – “buy my product” for example – but also the wider corporate context for that message and the voice it needs to be delivered in – which will depend on factors such as a company’s brand positioning, an institution’s role in society, and the nature of the target audience.
A translator working on behalf of a corporate entity has to take the words in the source language and consider every subtlety of the way they deliver their message, then craft a message in the target language that replicates every nuance of the original – not just what the lines of text themselves say, but what’s written between those lines. This is light-years away from “merely” translating the words from a foreign language into one I understand. In today’s world, a quick look on Google Translate suffices for the vast majority of people, when all they are looking for is to get the gist of what’s being said. Corporate communications, however, seek to do so much more than just inform. They seek to influence the reader – and this is an area where the services of a high-quality translator add real value.
The stakes in corporate communications are high: it’s about nothing less than the way a company presents itself, the products and services it offers, and how it wants to engage with society. To get their message across in a memorable way and with any hope of shaping opinion, communicators need to reach out to people with emotion and originality – and that’s something that’s beyond the reach of automated translation tools. Only a human translator can do it well.
That’s why, when people ask me what’s so special about corporate communications, I tell them it makes all the difference in the world.