Language Translations for Real Life Series: Expats Have Translation Needs Too!

When people think about translation services, the first thing that usually comes to mind is global businesses and brands that have conquered the international landscape. No matter where you go in the world, I bet you will find at least 10 people with an iPhone – with displays in the local language. Or if you’re thirsty, you can rest assured that a Coke can be found in a localized can or bottle. That’s a good thing for tourists and travelers who seek comfort in the familiarity of home brands abroad. But what about the person who just lives in this world… not a tourist nor a traveler, but an expat or an immigrant living in another country?

Of course, if you were born and raised in the Buy Barong Tagalog same place, where your parents lived, and your great-grandparents lived, and your entire family tree is rooted, and you never meet anyone from anywhere else, and all of life’s adventures were right there, maybe language wouldn’t matter…

Let me tell you about a story about a young girl, who led that life, in the same place in a small village, where her family tree was deeply rooted for generations. One day as she was walking home from school, through an Asian countryside, and she saw an old monk under a tree. The old monk beckoned her to join him under that tree…

Being a girl raised to respect elders, she obediently kneeled beside him under the tree. He told her to pull out her palm, and he began to read her life lines. He told her a story about her future, that she would one day move far away across a big ocean and settle in a foreign land, marry a foreign man, and raise a foreign family… and embrace a new life. Well, needless to say, the young girl was shocked, never having fathomed a life outside her village, she thanked the old monk and continued on her journey home.

Ten years later, that girl grew up, and married a man, and shortly later found herself on a plane to a foreign land, as the old saw predicted. Upon her arrival to her new home, she realized that not only could she not speak the local language, but the locals couldn’t understand her either. How was she to make a life without any English skills in America?

Fast forward thirty-five years ahead, and she is bidding her daughter farewell, as her only child boards an airplane to cross yet another ocean to another land with her foreign husband to embrace a new life in a new country, where she also cannot speak the local language.

The life of an expat is less about expatriating from your home, but more about embracing another. It’s about learning to conquer language barriers to achieve basic needs like making friends, buying food, returning merchandise, consulting with a doctor, talking to you child’s school teacher… It’s about ordering dinner at a restaurant, and hoping that you didn’t accidentally order bull testicles.

One tends to see the value of translating from one language into a local language, or translating for a tourist market, but how about translating in a local market for a person who simply doesn’t speak the language but lives there – an expat?

In the 2000 census, the U.S. Census Bureau reported that over 47 million people (18 percent) reported that a language other than English is spoken at home. Spanish is perhaps the non-English language most commonly spoken at home with 35 million speakers. Chinese (2 million) is the second most widely non-English spoken language at home. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, California has the highest percentage of non-English speakers around 40 percent. New Mexico is a close second, followed by Texas, New York and Hawaii.

Sure, many of these people can understand or speak some English, but life would be much easier to embrace if one had confidence, that he/she really understood the “fine print” when purchasing a product, or that you truly can communicate with doctors and teachers about personal issues.

There’s a reason that the State of California’s DMV provides driver license exams in several languages. Besides English, the written driver license exam is also available in Amharic, Arabic, Armenian, Cambodian, Chinese, Croatian, French, German, Greek, Hebrew, Hindi, Hmong, Hungarian, Indonesian, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Laotian, Persian/Farsi, Polish, Portuguese, Punjabi, Romanian, Russian, Samoan, Spanish, Tagalog/Filipino, Thai, Tongan, Turkish, and Vietnamese.

The Social Security Administration provides its official website in 15 foreign languages. The U.S. government appreciates the importance to communicating to its residents and constituents in foreign languages.

Don’t underestimate the growing international demographics at home. In order to be recognized by the global community, make sure you are meeting the needs of your local community. If you want to engage your customers or constituents, then break down the language barriers, including those that may even be in your own backyard. Many people expatriate to the great melting pot, not to leave their own culture behind, but to embrace a new one.

For many people, no matter where they live, and no matter which language(s) one learns to live with, it’s always comforting to be able to at least conduct some basic life feats in their mother tongue. Even if it’s just getting directions from Google Maps in your own language to get to the DMV for a CA driver’s exam in your own language! Passing it is tough, but that’s another story…

This article was written by Rachanee Thevenet, Co-Founder of HT Localization. Rachanee is an Asian-American expat living in Spain with her family. She loves all things international including food, art, literature, culture, languages and people.



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