Communication Can Go Wrong, even when You Have a Local Translation Team in China

When that massive earthquake struck Ya’an, a rural county located in the southwest of Sichuan province in China in 2013 donations and aid flooded in. At that time Apple pledged to donate approximately $8 million to victims of the natural disaster and many other western companies followed. It was an important signal for companies doing business in China to provide timely and appropriate support to demonstrate they are socially responsible and supportive of China. For example, we translated a number of messages from governments around Australia expressing condolences and offering support.

Sometimes, however the language goes wrong even when you have a local team. It is important to have oversight of what your local team or agencies are doing in China.

A day after the earthquake the Shanghai International Auto Show opened. One of the auto manufacturers set their expo stand with a stage backdrop saying “守望相助,安雅加油” (“In loving unity we support, go An’ya”) to express their condolences. Unfortunately, their local team got the name of the district “Ya’an” wrong. It wrote “An’ya” (which happens to be a Taiwanese celebrity’s name). The mistake was picked up by one of the audience members at the exhibition. He took a photo of the stage and posted it on Sina Weibo, with a comment saying “a typical PR disaster”. This post soon went viral due to the sensitivity of the topic, and the manufacturer was criticised for its carelessness as well as its insensitivity in dealing with the issue.

Nowadays, the Chinese government and consumers’ expectations towards foreign companies has significant changed. Simply bringing your money to the country is far from enough, and they expect foreign business operators to demonstrate commitment to the country’s long-term development and sustainability, such as timely and substantial responses to nationwide natural disasters. It is vital for businesses to ensure that such responses are accurate and culturally appropriate. And the first thing they have to do is to get the language right!


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