Learn a New Language and Gain a New Soul

Three unrelated events have transpired over the last few weeks that have inspired me to share a message with you that you know all too well: translating meaning from one language to another language (accurately) is very tricky business. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton learned that lesson the hard way when she presented Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov with a gift bearing an incorrect translation—one that implied hostility, rather than peacemaking. Clinton presented Lavrov with a orange button which said “Reset” in English and “Peregruzka” in Russian. The problem was, “peregruzka” doesn’t mean reset. It means overcharged, or overloaded. Lavrov called her out on it.

Now, the three unrelated events . . .
Event 1: My oldest son, Elliot, has just returned from a three month assignment in South Korea, teaching elementary school students American English. Though he spoke no Korean at the outset, his total immersion in Korean culture and living with his Korean host “family” forced him to become functionally conversational in Korean in just three months. Though his comprehension is rudimentary, he came to appreciate how translations from one language to another captures part of what was intended, but adds some pretty different subtleties as well. In assisting his students with their school newspaper with a cartoon storyline, he used a caption, “I played a joke on you.” But their translation was, “Ha ha, you have deceived me.” Close, but different.

Event 2: Barbara Billingsley, iconic mother in the old Leave It To Beaver TV series, just died at the age of 94. She played June Cleaver, an idealized mother of two boys whom she loved and protected, was often shown waiting for them to come home from school wearing an apron and holding a plate of freshly baked cookies. She even did household chores wearing pearls and earrings! Forever typecast, Billingsley spoofed her wholesome image with a very funny brief appearance in the comedy Airplane! by volunteering as a person who could speak “jive” in order to assist a physically ill African American passenger whom the flight attendant really didn’t understand.

Event 3: In my most recent Hogan certification workshop, I had a very lively participant from Montreal ask if the Hogan assessment tools were available in French, her primary language. Though she spoke with a thick French patois, her English was very good and articulate, but still, she wondered if she might have scored differently if she had taken the assessments in her native tongue. I told her that we have test translations in upwards of 40 languages, including French. She offered a quick, illustrative example—one of the questions asked her if she viewed herself as a “witty” person. After the testing, she asked her husband, “am I a witty person?” “What is this witty?”

Transferring an assessment instrument to a different culture and language is challenging and must be handled with accuracy and deep cultural understanding. When we (Hogan) have studied cultural differences in testing outcomes, though there are some differences, most are due to two things: sampling error and translation challenges.

Often, you cannot do a simple “forward translation” (word-for-word); when you then verify with a “backward translation,” the content can take on a bizarre Borat-like expression. We use a translation process called Adaptation—altering the translation content so that the meaning is the same in both cultures, even if the words differ. This requires a fully fluent translator who understands both the original culture (e.g., American culture) and the target culture (e.g., Chinese culture). We use fully fluent and bi-cultural translators with psychological training and backgrounds to translate the original test items into the target language. They have to understand both cultures so they can understand the meaning in US culture and adapt as appropriate for the target culture. They also need to be psychologists so they have an understanding of item construction and do not take translation liberties that harm the psychometric properties of the assessment items.

My son continues to study Korean for a return trip next year. I leave you with a Czech saying, “learn a new language and gain a new soul.”