IKEA Takes Proactive Approach to Translation Issues

Swedish furniture manufacturer IKEA has long been known for its unique approach to naming products, using Scandinavian words and place names instead of serial numbers and product codes.

However, if the company had acted with less foresight, that unconventional naming system could have become a problem in Thailand. As The Wall Street Journal reports, IKEA’s “Redalen” bed and their “Jättebra” plant pot both carry some rather unbecoming connotations when spoken in Thai.

However, unlike other companies who inadvertently end up putting their proverbial feet in their proverbial mouths,  IKEA dealt with the problem the right way…by fixing it before they opened their store in Bangkok last year.

A team of employees fluent in Thai were dispatched to go through each and every product name in the IKEA catalog, making changes as necessary. One of the employees,  Natthita Opaspipat,  explained the team’s mission to the Wall Street Journal:

“The Swedish…words are important because they bring a unique character to the brand.” Still, ” we’ve got to be careful,” she continued. “Some of them can be, well, a little rude.”

To make sure the new names resembled the originals, the team changed the offending words as little as they could get away with, then trained Thai employees on appropriate pronunciations to ensure no customers would be accidentally offended.  It took them four years….but their efforts appear to have been well-rewarded, with a successful opening for the Bangkok location.

Carleton University marketing professor Robin Ritchie told the Star.com that IKEA was actually lucky to have this problem when switching between languages with a different alphabet. It could have been worse:

“Ikea was actually in a very fortunate position in the context of Thailand in the sense of because there’s a transliteration issue you have the ability to make some adjustments,” he said. “That’s not the case when you’re talking about using roman characters in a new environment.”


English: The Language of Innovation?

Is English the language of innovation? Of course not. Innovation is one of the traits that makes humans human, and innovative ideas can be found and expressed in every language.

However, you might be forgiven for thinking that it is based on the media coverage. As Belgian/Italian entrepreneur Mark Vanderbeeken points out, the global coverage of new startups and technology is heavily influenced by the language it is written in… and that language is primarily English.  This has unfortunate consequences for entrepreneurs in non-English-speaking countries, investors and decision-makers in English-speaking countries and the world as a whole.

As Vanderbeeken explains in an excellent article reprinted in Wired:

“[T]he global news about innovation is written and read in English. It is only natural that international decision makers are influenced by English-language media reports on how European business climates and countries are being perceived. Unfortunately, Italy ends up being portrayed as a country without strong innovation capabilities.”

This perception means that even innovative ideas from Italian entrepreneurs are much more likely to be overlooked, instead of getting the attention, consideration and perhaps funding that they deserve. As Vanderbeeken puts it,

“Decision makers who are basing their information solely on what they are receiving in the English language media are unfortunately not learning a lot about the more dynamic and highly innovative realities that have recently arisen.”

Vanderbeeken also points out that, based on the experience of Silicon Valley, the English-speaking tech media is attached to the idea of specific cities being hotbeds of innovation. And since people like to write and read about what happens close to home, English-language media are exponentially more likely to look for the “next Silicon Valley” in the United States or the UK.

This, in turn, has consequences for the rest of Europe:

“And since the European newspaper editors take a lot of their innovation copy from English-language media, the bias gets reinforced: even Italian media tend to write about innovation as if it comes primarily from abroad.”

When promising startups get overlooked due to language barriers, and the best companies from non-English-speaking countries feel they have to relocate to grow, the whole world loses.

An Aramaic Language Revival?

The ancient Aramaic language (or group of languages, depending on who you ask) has long been endangered, clinging to life in small pockets of the Middle East. While Aramaic was once the lingua franca of the entire region, by 1996, there were only 500,000 speakers left.  The language is still used for services in the Syrian Orthodox and Maronite churches, but that’s not enough to keep it alive.  Some experts put the number of Aramaic speakers worldwide at 400,00 in 2004, when the Passion of the Christ was released.

In the past, Syria had made some efforts to revive it, and now two small Christian villages in Northern Israel are throwing their hats into the ring as well. They’ve been receiving some help from groups in Sweden, whose immigrant community has been at the forefront of efforts to preserve the ancient tongue.

In one village, Beit Jala, the efforts seems to be more informal, consisting of older residents who know the language teaching it to children.

In another village, Jish, Aramaic is now taught as an optional subject in school, using an Aramaic-language station from Sweden as a teaching aid. Given the ethnic and religious tensions woven into the fabric of life in the Holy Land, this decision was not without controversy. However, the controversy was not enough to sway principal Reem Khatieb-Zuabi. He told the Associated Press,

“This is our collective heritage and culture. We should celebrate and study it.”

It’s difficult to say which approach will work best, or whether either will ultimately be successful. In fact,the class in Jish saw about a 50% drop in enrollment after an art class was put on the schedule in the same time slot. But the class in Jish has at least one enthusiastic student: Carla Hadad, aged 10. She told reporters:

“We want to speak the language that Jesus spoke. We used to speak it a long time ago.”

Families Across Cultures

The list of concepts that translate universally across all cultures is smaller than you might think. The concept of a “family” is one such cultural universal. However, the way family relationships are described varies, sometimes significantly. For example, in Hawaiian, the same words are used to indicate siblings and cousins, whereas obviously in English we make a distinction between the two. ‘

How did these different kinship terms develop? Obviously, cultural factors like family structure and marriage play a role. However, one thing has always been a bit of a mystery: even the most specific systems of kinship leave many potential types of family relationships undescribed. After researchers from the University of Berkeley and Carnegie Mellon University analyzed kinship terms from 566 different languages, they concluded that this was because, when it comes to describing relationships, each society must strike a balance between simplicity and usefulness.

As Charles Kemp of Carnegie Mellon explained in Science Daily:

“A kinship system with one word referring to all relatives in a family tree would be very simple but not terribly useful for picking out specific individuals. On the other hand, a system with a different word for each family member is much more complicated but very useful for referring to specific relatives. If you look at the kinship systems in the languages of the world, you can’t make them simpler without making them less useful, and you can’t make them more useful without making them more complicated. There is a trade-off between these two explanatory principles.”

And thank heavens for that, because I admit I get lost already at family reunions, trying to tell the difference between second cousins, cousins once removed, etc.

The cool thing about these findings is that they are more broadly applicable; as Science Daily writes,

“Ultimately, then, the work may lead to a general theory of how different languages carve the world up into categories.”

Can you think of any interesting kinship terms in another language that don’t have an English equivalent? Share them in the comments!

Photo Credit:  Attribution Some rights reserved by libertygrace0
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