Whether I'm wearing my Lexcelera hat or my Translators without Borders hat, a challenge I often face is to prove that language matters.
For commercial translations, the best piece of information I have is the often repeated finding by the Common Sense Advisory that customers are six times more likely to buy when information is available in their language.
This is helpful information, but one of the reasons it is so widely cited is that it stands almost alone in making the corporate case for investing in translation. Much more research is needed.
On the non-profit side, Translators without Borders has come up with some conclusive research that, not surprisingly, draws a straight line between language and comprehension.
The context of the study is the first half of the Ebola pandemic, when the disease was raging, out of control, through West Africa, At the time, many voices questioned why the vulnerable populations weren't taking the necessary precautions to avoid being infected. For Translators without Borders, this not unexpected given that local language needs were ignored: the instructions that were circulating to rural villagers were overwhelmingly in English!
I believe TWB was partly responsible for turning the tide on the pandemic by helping make Ebola prevention information available in local languages, but that's a story for another day. What I want to say here is that in order to raise awareness among non-profits about the need to communicate to people in their own language, Translators without Borders conducted a study with the kind of results everyone should be talking about.
As Simon Andriesen of Medilingua, CEO and chairman of the Kenya TWB (TWB-K) board, reports in a presentation he will deliver in Guinea this month, the Translators without Borders study compared the comprehension of translated Ebola information with untranslated information.
The results are unequivocal. And, again, not surprising to those of us in the language industry.
When a cohort of 200 West Africans was first questioned about their knowledge of Ebola, they answered just 8% of the questions correctly. After reading an English poster about the disease, they were able to answer 16% of the questions correctly. But - and this is where the results are off the charts - when they read a poster in their own language, the participants answered 92% of the questions correctly!
- Before reading the warning poster: 8% correct
- After reading the English warning poster: 16% correct
- After reading the translated warning poster: 92% correct!
I do not believe that I can overstate the importance of this finding. For all of our sakes, let's hope that the next time the world is facing a global pandemic, this real-life research into the importance of translation will be remembered.
For those of us who also wear corporate hats, I believe we need more studies like this one that prove the benefit of translation. Why not a comparison of international sales (for example of software or mobile phones) with and without local language information? A comparison of app downloads before and after translation?
When customers are asked about their language preferences, that is important information because it shows they prefer to interact in their own languages. But how does that affect buying behaviour concretely? We need actual figures for the boost that translation brings to sales, downloads, visits, and so on.
I feel we are undervalued as an industry. And I fear that we will stay that way until we can offer proof of what we know to be true: #LanguageMatters.