Lets talk about naming.
What’s in a name? From Audi to Zappos, brand names are a part of everyday life. However, naming new products or services, or even whole industries, with little thought to what a name communicates can often lead to confusion, misunderstanding or at worst indifference.
In this post I’m going to focus on an industry with which I have a good few years experience. I’m going to refer to this industry as “The Translation Industry” although as I’ll later discuss, it goes by a few other names too.
The problem with naming.
The word “Translation” is defined by Wikipedia as “the communication of the meaning of a source-language text by means of an equivalent target-language text”. It’s a word almost everyone understands, especially those who speak more than one language. When you dig a little deeper and ask people how translation works, what it involves, how “easy” it is, you get many different answers. However, central to these answers is the concept of communication, enabling people who speak different languages to communicate through written words.
The translation industry, therefore, is in the business of communication and as communicators translation companies should be well versed in the art of clarity and avoidance of ambiguity. Somewhere in the last 10 to 15 years this was overlooked when a few translation companies decided to start referring to themselves as “Language Service Providers”, which then became shortened to “LSP’s”.
Call it what it is
I have a problem with this naming convention for a couple of reasons. The first is the phenomenon I call “marketing speak”. Marketing speak is often employed to impart a particular image of something, to hide the reality of what it really is. I noticed a great example of marketing speak taking precedence over proper naming a few years back while delivering an old couch to the dump. My local rubbish dump had recently been taken over by a private contractor and this private contractor clearly cared about its corporate image. As I drove into the entrance I notice a huge sign emblazoned with the company logo and the words “waste management park”.
If you break this name down semantically it makes less sense the further you read it. “Waste” is a sanitised word for rubbish, which, if you’re British like me, means stuff that has no use, likely smells and needs to be thrown away. More recently “waste” has taken on a more negative meaning and is now often used to connote inefficiency, unnecessary obsolescence, even laziness.
The word “management” denotes the structured organisation of tasks, processes and often people. However it has other connotations. Management is often associated with the higher echelons of business; people in suits; important meetings. I didn’t see anyone at the dump sorting through rubbish wearing a Saville Row pinstripe ensemble with a pocket square.
“Park” is the word that most people would take issue with here, and I feel it’s used to deliberately obfuscate the ugly reality of what goes on when you throw all sorts of unwanted things into a hole in the ground. There were no children’s swings, no football pitch or any other discernible signs of “park-ness” at the dump, only a hole in the ground, a few bulldozers and men in bright orange high-vis jackets.
The clue is in the name
While this is an extreme example of how naming can be subverted, the name “Language Service Provider” deserves a little attention. It’s ambiguous. How does one define a “Language Service” for example? Two extreme definitions of a “language service” could be the Oxford English Dictionary or the community actively campaigning to keep Esperanto alive, both provide a language service. My point is “translation” works much better than “language service” because it’s a word that denotes a defined concept much more precisely than “language service” ever will.
The word “provider” is, again, ambiguous. It’s often used with the word “solutions” which is a word employed when explaining something complicated in a simple way is too much effort. If we take the word “provider” to include the concept of “providence” translation companies could be accused of assuming the role of “a spiritual power”. Sure, this is extreme, but you can see how the use of words and their associated meanings can lead to confusion.
My preference for clear communication leads me back to the words “translation” and “company”. Now, I can already hear cries of “but what about localisation”? Well here’s the thing; go ask anyone on the street what “localisation” is and I guarantee you’ll get a lot of blank faces. Why? Because it describes a complex process of translation and adaptation of text, across a range of different mediums, into many different languages and locales. Localisation is a process that takes many forms, from translation of printed product manuals and instructions, to extraction and translation of text strings from the software code that underpins smartphone user interfaces. “Localisation” is a big concept, and fascinating when you start to learn what’s involved. However it’s something that I’d argue the general population has little to no knowledge of, and therefore isn’t as powerful or easy to understand as “translation”.
But what if the general population aren’t your target market? What if your customers already know what a “language service provider” is? This, I’d argue plays to a bigger problem. Part of what I do as a marketing consultant to the translation industry is to help companies understand how to inform and educate their customers about the work they do, to help customers make informed purchasing decisions, and ultimately generate more sales for my clients. Many translation buyers, especially in startups or small to medium sized businesses don’t have the years of experience under their belt that a dedicated localisation manager at Microsoft might have. They’re often confused by the seeming complexity of terminology or processes involved, or care only about the lowest possible price and the end result. I see this as a symptom of poor communication on the part of translation companies who’ve not been able to define why they exist, how they make their customers lives easier and ultimately, exactly what it is they do.
Talk to a translator and they’ll tell you the favourite part of their job is when they can be creative, when they can use their knowledge and understanding of source and target language to craft beautifully worded translations that fulfil their intended objective. Talk to translation project managers and they’ll tell you they’re happiest when client and translation company are both on the same page. When the client understands the translation process, understands what’s required from them at the review stage, and ultimately starts sending more projects through as their trust and satisfaction increases.
Translation is more than just a “solution”
Let’s go back to my point about communication. If you’re an “LSP“ and you’re struggling with the pressures of a competitive marketplace and frustrated by customers who are only interested in price, you might want to take another look at the words you’re using. Are you selling localisation solutions or are you translating iPhone apps?
“Translation” is an art, not a “solution”, as powerful as it is pervasive. Proper naming and clear communication, free from ambiguity, can help the translation industry continue to build awareness of the important role it plays and gain the greater recognition it deserves for shaping the world in which we live.
If you, or anyone you know is affected by any of the issues covered in this blog post, leave me a comment or drop me a message using the contact form here.