Arrival gained its 2017 Academy Award thanks to the work of Sylvain Bellemare, who bypassed the typical sounds associated with previous alien epics in favour of a more organic approach to a classic science fiction topic.
However, it wasn’t just the soundtrack that made this Oscar-winner stand out from its predecessors. Unlike countless alien movies that have gone before, Arrival looked at the subject of alien invasions from a fresh viewpoint: the struggle we might face when translating an alien language.
For those who haven’t seen it (spoiler alert), Arrival follows the story of linguistics professor Louise Banks (played by Amy Adams) as she works alongside the government to learn the aliens’ language and establish communication with Earth’s unexpected visitors.
More concerned with the truth about language and communication than the prospect of extra-terrestrial life, the film has already been tipped by language experts as a turning point for the field, helping to shine new light on the significance of language even in our own world.
So what can expanding businesses learn from Arrival when it comes to operating in international markets?
The Implications of Misunderstandings
Translation fails can be amusing to linguists and business people alike, but Arrival highlights just how potentially disastrous they can really be. During the film, we discover that a mistranslation is the catalyst that could result in a war between the aliens, – the ‘heptapod’ – and human beings. The alien word for ‘tool’ is mistranslated as ‘weapon’ and panic ensues as everyone turns against each other in fear.
It is unlikely that a mistranslation in the business world would lead to Armageddon! But the lesson still stands: a single mistranslation can have dire consequences. International bank HSBC is among those to have found this out the hard way when it was forced to launch an extremely costly rebrand campaign in countries across the world.
Their mistake? HSBC had translated the tag line ‘Assume Nothing’ incorrectly into ‘Do Nothing’ – a phrase with entirely different implications.
The Cultural Advantage of Human Translation
Next up, a lesson in cultural awareness. Arrival highlights just how important sensitivity to a foreign culture is and in fact it’s the main character’s ability to empathise and understand unfamiliar cultures (both on Earth and that of the alien visitors) that saves the day. Conversely, it’s the army’s lack of understanding that causes the risk in the first place as commanders look for instant, automated answers as if dealing with machines rather than an entirely new species.
There are clear business lessons to be learned here; good translation has to be culturally sensitive. A company risks drastically offending people in its new target markets if they use the wrong words in the wrong situation.
A good translation service will ensure this doesn’t happen. Unlike machine translators, linguists use their experience of the culture associated with the target language. This ensures that while the message might be delivered using different words, it still has the same overall meaning and connotations.
In fact, expert translators will even use their knowledge of another language to evoke emotions using appropriate words to “transcreate”, helping businesses to encourage the right brand associations in a new market and build up their reputation.
The Importance of Every Word
When marketing overseas, the goal is to make your message clear and avoid ambiguity, whether you’re building on brand messaging or promoting product features. In Arrival, the difference between a ‘weapon’ and a ‘tool’ is confused as the word is translated along the lines of a ‘hammer’, which could be seen as either depending of the perception of the audience.
Ultimately, Banks is tasked with convincing the world that the gift brought by the aliens is actually the latter, a tool, and not a weapon, thus preventing the declaration of war.
In a real world situation, you probably don’t have Amy Adams on your marketing team helping you clarify the company’s intent in a new market.
So what can we take away from this? Every word matters, collaboration, and clarity are key. A translator will take the time to understand the original message exactly and ensure that this is carried over to mean the same thing in an entirely different language with an entirely new culture. It’s no simple task but it’s well worth the effort.
Arrival’s ultimate linguistic lesson is that without the due care and attention to a translation, you may as well be speaking an extra-terrestrial language as far as your new market is concerned.
Avoid confusion and offense and use an expert translation service to keep your marketing message accurate in content, values and emotion.