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Is "intercultural" communication a moot point?

by Geoff Hart

Previously published as: Hart, G. 2007. Is "intercultural" communication a moot point? Intercom May 2007:26–27.

If you're like the majority of Intercom readers, you're reading this article from somewhere in the United States. Thus, if I asked you to "fetch me a spanner from the boot of my auto, and mind that the bonnet doesn't hit you on the head", you might spend a moment or two puzzling over the meaning of my words. Indeed, if you weren't exposed to British books from an early age, you might not figure out that I was simply asking you to "get me a wrench from the trunk of my car, and watch out that the hood doesn't hit your head", and your aching head might result from more than the struggle to figure out my warning. Clearly, some subtleties of language will be lost without translation, even when that translation is only between dialects of English. Imagine how much more difficult things can be if the translation is between languages used by very different cultures!

Unless you're Rip van Winkle or Sleeping Beauty, you've undoubtedly noticed that our profession has become increasingly international. Indeed, buzzwords like localization (L10N) and internationalization (I18N) no longer seem strange, even if many of us are a bit fuzzy about what they really mean. Formerly, we may have been able to get away with publishing all our information exclusively in English, but as my example shows, there's increasing recognition that we'll succeed better if we produce information in the language of our actual audience based on a careful consideration of their unique linguistic and cultural needs.

It's hard to argue with that point—indeed, the logic is tautologous—yet as the advocates of simplified technical English ( have repeatedly demonstrated, sometimes you may be forced to communicate exclusively in English, whether because of a lack of resources for translation or other constraints, and sometimes it's sufficient and effective to do so. In short, sometimes good intercultural communication is nothing more than good communication. Phrased a bit more precisely, intercultural communication must at least start with good communication in the original language.

As a professional translator (French to English) living in a bilingual environment (the province of Quebec), I fully recognize the importance of translation, and I don't for a moment intend to give the impression that translation or localization is unnecessary. On the contrary, I'd like to propose something a bit radical in this article: that focusing on localization may to some extent be missing the point. Good writing is good writing in any language, and focusing on the quality of the writing in your own language is a great start to any communication with people from other cultures.

Good communication

Good communication, in any language, is clear, concise, and precise. These three points alone make a good starting point for any intercultural communication.

Clarity should be obvious, yet if you look at much of the information we produce—including this essay—you'll see many phrases that are more difficult to understand than they need to be. As I'm writing for a predominantly English-speaking audience that loves words and writing, I allow myself to shamelessly indulge my love of commas, parenthetical comments, and compound sentences. But were I writing specifically for an audience with English as their second or third language, I'd have spent more time rewording to eliminate the more complex sentences. I'd also take a long, hard look at words such as shameless and indulge, which carry cultural connotations that may not transfer well to other cultures. I'd also eschew sentences beginning with "as", which can imply simultaneity ("as I was writing this, the phone rang") rather rather than causality ("because I'm writing for you folks..."). The simple subjunctive ("were I writing"), which is somewhat imperiled in modern English, might be better expressed using words that make the conditionality clearer: "If I am writing specifically for a non-English audience, then I spend more time rewording."

Such careful consideration of word choice is an important contributor to clarity, and in much of our writing, sticking with shorter words that carry less cultural baggage and with simpler sentence structures is a better approach. Doing so requires us to pay careful attention to what we've written. Really good writers tend to write without overthinking what we're doing, but sometimes it pays to take a large step back and carefully examine what we've done. The key in such examinations is to look past our own joy at using words the way Jackson Pollock used his paintbrush, and ask hard questions about whether that approach makes good sense for an intercultural audience. Often it doesn't, and we must exert more self-discipline in how we write.

Concision does not, as some propose, mean eliminating every word that can possibly be eliminated. All else being equal, it's better to write short texts than long texts, since few readers have the patience to wade through long documents. But all else is rarely equal. Concise writing begins with a careful focus on what the reader truly needs to know. Eliminate all else. This does not mean that you should eliminate things like articles and other function words that provide useful clues to the meaning of the following word; in this sentence, for instance, both uses of "that" are helpful. Neither does this mean that you should engage in ellipsis, which is the practice of leaving words or even short phrases implicit. Such omissions are part of the idiom of a language, and are generally easy for native readers to figure out; however, they slow even these readers because they add the cognitive burden of filling in the gaps, and can pose formidable obstacles to non-native readers who are less skilled with the idiom. "The principle I'm discussing here" is easy enough to understand; "the principle that I'm discussing here" is easier. Concision has additional advantages: text becomes clearer when its focus is not diluted by peripheral issues that distract the reader from the main point, and shorter texts mean that if you do decide to translate a document, there's less of it to translate. That decreases costs, turnaround times, and the risk of mistranslations.

In the typical work done by technical communicators, precision means nothing more complex than specifying the actor and using the right word for the job. The argument over active versus passive voice seems to have largely been settled in favor of active voice, but the blanket proscription against passive voice found in some style guides ignores a crucial distinction: sometimes it's crucial that you identify the actor, and sometimes the actor need not or should not be identified. Understanding this difference tells you when it's necessary to specify the actor—thereby making the meaning more precise—and when the actor can be safely left anonymous, thereby permitting a certain degree of imprecision where doing so causes no harm. In terms of word choice, we all recognize the principle of choosing the best word for the job, but doing so can lead us astray by needlessly increasing the vocabulary required to understand a manuscript. This suggests that where we have the choice between a common but slightly imprecise $1 word and a rare but highly precise $10 word, we'd be wise to save $9 and use the common word if doing so doesn't compromise our meaning.

Simplified English and other controlled vocabularies offer two powerful guidelines that promote precision: each word should, to the extent that it is possible, convey only a single meaning, and each concept should be communicated by only a single word. The result of this choice is that readers only rarely have to pause to figure out which of two possible meanings a word is conveying, or to figure out whether two words refer to the same concept or something different. This form of consistency means that we should avoid synonyms and other forms of elegant variation, and should stick to words that have few or no alternative meanings. (Editors incorporate this advice under the task of editing for consistency.) Of course, this advice sometimes dictates that we choose the $10 word instead of the $1 word. Word choice, like many other aspects of writing, is sometimes a bit of a balancing act in which we must choose between contradictory guidelines.

Babel... and babble

The take-home message of this article is that focusing on intercultural issues may lead us to put the cart before the horse. I don't doubt that someone, somewhere, will misread this statement and take away the message that I recommend avoiding the whole intercultural aspect and simply writing clearly in English. I make no such recommendation. My point here is that good writing communicates effectively both to your native-language speakers and to the translators who will convert your English into something that is properly localized. Whether or not you plan to eventually translate and localize your information, emphasizing clear, concise, and precise language will benefit readers for whom English is a second or third language and who accept the occasional need to work in English—but it will also benefit your native English readers.

Moreover, this approach will have significant benefits for you as a writer: Once you master the skills of writing clearly and concisely for all audiences, you'll write faster and more effectively and your writing will require less revision. Then, when you do have the resources to localize, your translators will have a much easier time working with your materials.

©2004–2017 Geoffrey Hart. All rights reserved