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Lost in translation: The role of foreign data & localisation in crisis comms

Lost in translation: The role of foreign data & localisation in crisis comms

An overview of the importance of cross-border information, drawing on foreign intelligence and where to find it, by Ofer Tirosh of Tomedes.

The COVID-19 crisis has put people and systems to the test. As I write, more than 3 billion people – nearly half the world’s population – are under some form of lockdown, shutdown or quarantine. From patients and their families, to healthcare professionals and first responders, public officials and business owners – everyone’s world has been turned upside down. 

Where does this leave professionals whose business is communicating stories to the public? PRs the world over are asking, how can we better serve our clients? How can we add value? 

Language arbitrage

Arbitrage in any field involves finding inefficiencies between supply and demand, and taking advantage of those imbalances. In this global crisis, that means being able to access insights and best practices from other geographies and other markets to inform how we communicate.

We’ll focus here on the role that “language arbitrage” can play in providing PR practitioners with a competitive advantage.

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How can linguistic knowledge help crisis comms?

Crisis communications is a PR specialty focused on protecting and defending clients from challenges to their reputations. The health and economic crisis triggered by COVID-19 has put virtually every business at risk, requiring immediate attention. 

For the PR professional, the work entails the collection, processing and dissemination of information to address the crisis. What is not always appreciated is the role that cross-language arbitrage can play here. 

Your role necessitates digging for actionable knowledge your clients can use – and the source of that information may well be in a foreign language.

The current crisis has made this dependency on translated communications crystal clear. The ability to translate reports and papers coming out of China, Italy and Spain provided valuable insights to medical researchers and public health officials, leaders and businesspeople. When the viral wave hit the United States, lessons from overseas had been translated and interpreted to improve preparation. 

If today’s leaders are assailed, it is for lack of preparation once information becomes known locally. If a public official or other leader is inefficient in using foreign information, that becomes their problem. They are expected to assimilate knowledge, regardless of source language. The answer? Translation. But this leads us to another problem: how can we ensure that technical terms and data are understood locally?

Established wells of international data

A truly international PR practice must develop close partnerships with its local partners; after all, the head office in London or Washington is unlikely to be fluent in Urdu, Swahili or Burmese. Typically, a PR firm works with a local partner to ensure a coordinated response in the local language. But how to ensure that key terms are not lost in translation? 

Into that breach stepped a not-for-profit, Translators Without Borders, which assembled a glossary of specialised terms to ensure consistency and accuracy across linguistic frontiers. TWB had created cross-lingual glossaries for previous crises like the Rohingya refugee crisis, and achieved coverage in top translation industry sites and in the general media. So when the current crisis came along, it was well-positioned to reframe its glossary in terms of COVID-19.

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Another excellent example of adaptation is Worldometer. For some 15 years, this stat provider offered scholars and professionals statistical information on demographics, diseases and so on. Early in the COVID-19 crisis, it began creating and continually updating info and graphs about the pandemic in the making, expanding to country-specific graphs and linking to local information sources. It has become an invaluable reference for reliable info, and has shot up into the Alexa top 50.

Another essential go-to resource is Google Datasets Search. This provides filtered access to reliable statistical sources you can use in your PR work, many of which come from governments and thinktanks.  

The current translation apps for PR in a crisis

Machine translation has improved dramatically in the last 5 years, with the introduction of AI-driven algorithms based on neural networks optimising the ability of apps like Google Translate and Microsoft Translator to render fast and accurate translations. 

These services are invaluable for translating web research into understandable language for you and your clients. However, it’s worth remembering that such apps are not error-free: don’t be tempted to deliver machine-translated texts “as is” to your clients. Instead, use them to derive the gist of foreign-language information and research.

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In these days of social distancing and the cancellation of conferences and travel, machine translation can provide support for virtual meetings and conferences across language barriers. With Microsoft’s Translator, a presenter can speak in one language and listeners in remote locations can simultaneously hear machine-generated translations in any of dozens of foreign languages. 

And with the growing ubiquity of videoconferencing as the norm, Video Remote Interpretation is exploding. Human interpreters join your Zoom, Skype or Hangout call to close language gaps between meeting participants.

How localisation services can strengthen crisis communications delivery

The crisis that has collapsed the world as we knew it has also, ironically, made us more accessible than ever before to one another and to news, be it fake or true. With less travel and fewer external meetings, virtually all media is communicated digitally with everyone and everything less than a click away, for better and for worse. 

News spreads virally and skips national borders in a heartbeat. PR professionals involved in crisis communications need to stay a stroke ahead. For those involved in global comms, that may mean investing in a partnership with a language service agency to help expand your crisis coverage and ensure a client’s reputation, and yours, is not lost in translation.


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Ofer Tirosh is founder and CEO of Tomedes, a language service provider specialising in translation and interpretation.

Published 6 June 2020.

Relationships / Crisis Communication