This post in the series is about my favourite subject: translation. Long, long, long ago I aspired to become an interpreter – but changed my mind. Still, I consider myself a linguist and a good one at that, speaking 6 languages of which 3 fluent. The existence of extreme diversity in languages of the world, and the same existence in diversity in an average enterprise IT landscape have always hooked my attention.
Learning a language can be very hard and time-consuming, and very few will ever master a non-native language perfectly. Most of us know someone within the same country that has an accent and just can’t seem to get rid of it; those that have connections across the border might have heard other people speak their language and have difficulties understanding them. Or one has heard a colleague or neighbour speak a foreign language and, while not being able to speak that language fluently themselves, has good reason to suspect that there will be people on the other side having difficulties understanding that “version of the language”.
In short, a language spoken by a so-called non-native speaker always has a certain external “flavour” to it. If a Dutchman, a German and a Frenchman all have to learn English in order to exchange information with each other, it is almost a guarantee that that English will have elements of all those three languages in it. It will not be British English, nor will it be American English; it will be some kind of English that sounds a bit like English combined with Dutch, German and French. Dunglish, Genglish and Frenglish combined: it will make for a hilarious comedy, unless it’s a serious professional occasion.
Learning a language takes time, money, and last but not least talent.
In professional business, therefore, often interpreters are used: people who have made it their profession to be fluent in at least 2 languages, and in that way can interact between two persons or parties who only speak one of them. There no longer is a need for individuals to master a foreign language: people can speak their own, and the interpreter will just translate them.
Professional interpreters come at a price: it is obvious why not everyone can afford one, and thus has to learn a foreign language himself.
On the other hand, some people can’t afford the time needed to invest in a foreign language: it is of course inconceivable that a president or CEO is sent on a language course for several years in order to master a language: that simply is an investment that would never render a return. Even worse, a person in that position would not have to be fluent in only two, but perhaps a dozen languages. So, learning a language yourself comes at a price too. Mastering a language in a perfect way is “priceless” for most.
Moving the interpreter into place provides not only a short term benefit, but also a long-term one: if the president or CEO is ever succeeded, the successor doesn’t have to be sent on a language course either. One interpreter: a lifetime investment that returns every single day. And the best news? Interpreters themselves are fairly disposable too…
So, in certain strategic positions within a company, it is a very wise investment to make use of interpreters. In general those positions are characterised by people that have unique, expert knowledge and skills that make them highly valuable for the company. A lot of time and money was invested to either cultivate or buy those specific characteristics: one can easily compare that to the careful selection of a business-critical application or system within the IT-landscape.
Translating one language to the other, however, whether done by people themselves or with the help of an intermediate like an interpreter, is still not eliminating dependencies: there are only exactly two languages involved, and the only translation possible is based on the combined knowledge of those two. Here’s what happens when you do the math on that:
When e.g. a German, a Frenchman and an Englishman would participate in a conversation, there would be a need for three interpreters: one that translates from German to French (and vice versa), one from German to English (and vice versa), and one from French to English (and vice versa).
If another person would participate, e.g. a Dutchman, three additional interpreters would be needed: one that translates from German to Dutch (and vice versa), one from English to Dutch (and vice versa), and one from French to Dutch (and vice versa).
Two parties, two interpreters; three parties, three interpreters; four parties, six interpreters: this is going the wrong way!
It seems like there is a formula for direct translation and parties involved: for n parties involved, there are n/2 * (n – 1) interpreters needed: one interpreter for every two parties (n/2), and as many interpreters as there are other languages (n – 1).
That formula exists, is widely recognised and true, and that is why in real life the solution is only one: next stop, the European Parliament.