A Case for English (Legal) Linguistic Consultancy in International Business

English, or Euro-English?

For a while now I have been working as a linguistics professional, specializing in legal linguistics in Dutch and English. It’s quite the niche: it requires knowledge of both languages, as well as of the underlying cultures and legal systems. Since the Anglo-American legal system is in certain respects vastly different from the Dutch legal system (common law v Roman law), translation is rarely a matter of simply opening up the dictionary and choosing the most appropriate term. Improvisation, creativity and research are required to deliver high-quality work.

While the above is true, the need for (legal) linguistics professionals in Dutch corporate situations actually already begins at a far more basic level.

The Netherlands is a relatively small country. Its native tongue is Dutch, spoken only by the Dutch and a few disparate Dutch (ex-)colonies, and no more. True, the Belgians speak Flemish, which is close to Dutch but different enough that it can certainly not be considered the same language; Afrikaans is related to Dutch and so we can understand certain words and phrases, as those who speak Afrikaans can understand certain Dutch words and phrases.

Being residents of such a small country with such a unique language spoken and understood by few, the Dutch have always prided themselves on their language skills. In school, Dutch children take mandatory English classes and have to learn at least one other foreign (European) language besides.

But there is a difference between speaking a language and speaking it well (not to mention writing it well). A few years ago, the humourous book “I always get my sin” was a popular Christmas gift in the Netherlands. It highlighted the degree to which the Dutch believe that they have mastered the English language well enough to communicate with British and American native speakers comfortably and professionally (I’ve been informed by a professional dealing with international business situations on a daily basis that the British refer to this type of English as Euro-English: it’s understandable, but real comprehension is a whole different issue). Interestingly, the book itself was an example of the extent to which the Dutch are still not nearly as fluent in English as they like to think: Dutch readers cracked up at all the literal, incorrect translations of Dutch sayings, but editors apparently hadn’t caught the translations that weren’t incorrect at all and should therefore have been omitted. For instance: “it speaks volumes” is a valid English idiom and a correct translation of the similar Dutch idiom  “het spreekt boekdelen” and as such not a humorous mistranslation, something an editor should have caught.

Of course, the English and American counterparts of Dutch businessmen and politicians understand that English is not the Dutchman’s native language and that fluency should not be expected, but an unjustified sense of linguistic prowess can quickly become an issue when doing business in an international environment. One faux pas may be amusing, two or three might even bring some levity to negotiations and debates, but a continued handicap in linguistic understanding can sabotage dealings between even the most willing of partners. Even more so if the English or American counterpart in these lacks a sense of humour…

As Dutch companies venture more and more out into the world of international business, it is essential that they be perhaps not proficient, but at least sufficiently skilled in international business (and legal) English, in addition to having a basic understanding of the difference in cultures. England may be “right next door”, but geographical proximity does not guarantee an instant and adequate understanding of the cultural subtext in English communication. Similarly, American culture does not become second nature to a Dutch person simply by their watching American movies and television shows (although that often does significantly improve comprehension, and it has the added benefit of exposing the viewer to colloquialisms, slang and mannerisms).

In the context of the above, I’d like to explore the different aspects of linguistic consultancy.

English Linguistic Consultancy & Translation

Many companies in the Netherlands still prefer to compose their documents in Dutch. When the need arises for communication, those companies will make use of translation services for their Dutch texts in order to present their products and services in English. For advertising texts and explanatory documents translation can be a fairly straightforward matter, but such translations take on a different dimension when it concerns legal documents.

Naturally, an accurate legal translation is essential for good business: a clear agreement on the exact nature and specifics of a business deal and a correct understanding of contracts is key. The difference between legal systems, as already touched upon earlier in this post, adds a level of difficulty here.

But the most interesting element is that of the legal consequences to legal translations. Yes, most companies cover the risks by adding the legal jurisdiction and original text clause, but does that always indemnify against dire consequences? The ramifications of translation mishaps can be very costly indeed! While not exactly a translation issue, what is widely known as “the million dollar comma case” illustrates the possible ramifications of correct language and grammar where two different language versions of the same contract have been drawn up. At the heart of this tale lay a contract drawn up in both English and French. The English version contained one comma too many, which resulted in a very expensive premature termination by one party. The other party appealed, referring to the French language version of the same contract and stating that it contained the correct statement of the intended agreement. In the end, the court agreed to rely on the French version of the contract and so this story ended well, but law professors still use this case as a cautionary tale to impress on future lawyers and translators the importance of correct English usage and grammar.

And in case there was any doubt: correct grammar and punctuation are indeed part and parcel of any translation.

English Linguistic Consultancy & Communication

A good working knowledge of international English – disregarding for a moment the more specific areas of legal and business English – is not only helpful, but actually quite important. As the saying goes: you never get a second chance to make a first impression. That first impression can be the deciding factor in whether or not a potential English or American business partner chooses to proceed to do business with a company.

In business the primary objective of communication is for it to be clear and efficient. It is very cumbersome to have to take out 2 hours for a meeting due to communication issues, when half an hour would have sufficed if all persons present spoke good English. And in business, time is money. Therefore, the communication factor will most definitely be taken into account when deciding the pros and cons of entering into a business relationship.

The language element really comes to the fore when deadlines have to be met; if the language barrier slows you down enough, you will simply not be able to perform as agreed upon, simply because getting to a correct understanding will take too much time, reviewing the result on the receiving end will be very work-intensive, and feedback will require too long to process properly.

But even before companies reach the above stage of being in the thick of actually doing business, there’s presentation. Non-native speakers of English tend to assume that presenting oneself in English comes naturally, which is certainly not the case. Advertising texts in brochures, slogans on billboards: these are primary tools used by companies to market themselves, and incorrect English usage or bad spelling will send a message of substandard quality and lack of attention to detail. Even large companies fall prey to such mistakes; take for example Volkswagen’s advertising campaign which featured the slogan “VW. For careless driving”. (italics by me; unfortunately, I haven’t been able to find a link to the campaign, but posters with this slogan are still up at selected Volkswagen dealerships) This does nothing to recommend the product, unless VW’s target group consists of drivers heading out onto the road without a care for the safety of their fellow road users. (An editorial glance over the slogan would have been enough to ensure that the word “carefree” would have been used instead.)

But wait: there’s more! Target language distinction matters. Spelling differs between English and American – “centre” v “center”, “valour” v “valor”, “grey” v “gray” – as do colloquialisms, or slang. It’s important not only to know this, but to be consistent in your use of either British or American English.

In formal documentation, the use of colloquialisms is not quite so prominent, but when discussing matters face-to-face, it plays a huge part. One of the standard anecdotes illustrating incorrect word choice is the man making a quick drawing of a schematic on the back of an envelope for his American business partner. They’re in a bar in New York, and he makes a mistake in his drawing. He calls over the waiter and asks for a rubber. Not so strange to British ears where a rubber is a synonym for an eraser, but to everyone else involved in this situation he just asked for a condom. Awkward…

English Linguistic Consultancy & Business

How can linguistic consultancy be useful to Dutch companies operating on the international playing field? The answer lies mostly in training and support.

A linguistics consultant can provide a company with general language training, and specific business and legal English training on a regular basis. If the company specifies the region with which it aims to conduct business, a consultant can also train staff in relevant culture and custom.  In addition, these training sessions can target the relevant area of business and/or law.

The importance of cultural understanding is illustrated rather nicely in the movie Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps. During a business meeting with Chinese investors, Jake Moore demonstrates an understanding of what Chinese business custom prescribes in order to express appreciation and respect for one’s negotiating partner, as well as a desire to move forward with the negotiations. His gesture earns him respect, as well as their interest in further exploring the options with which he has presented them. Yes, it is just a movie, but it is most definitely true that there is an added value to cultural sensitivity.

Linguistic consultancy can be applied in a more specialized context as well. Companies, such as trust firms and consultancy firms, often work in teams, with each team responsible for dealing with a specific client or business partner. A linguistic consultant – having signed a confidentiality agreement, naturally – can delve into the specifics of a project, preparing the team for any linguistic eventuality while working on the project. In other words: training sessions would then be aimed at a specific client as well as the specifics involved in the project in question, in order to create knowledge and awareness of business and/or legal terminology that will come up. That way, the team is always well-prepared, even for impromptu phone calls or spur of the moment meetings. This will show the company off as engaged, prepared and professional.

Of course, here too, the culture of the relevant geographical region would be included in the training sessions.

Linguistics consultants also prove their value when providing support, such as additional training in preparation for important scheduled meetings, presentations, pitches, and so on, as well as being able to edit documents on short notice.

All in all, in the field of international, a linguistics consultant can really make an enormous contribution to the professionalism of a company, something that is well worth the investment.