How getting language and culture wrong can cause you big headaches

An article I stumbled upon recently illustrates just how far-reaching consequences can be when documents and texts are not translated and understood properly. 

Translation Company and language consultancy 'Today Translations' has published the article in which it describes the case of Mr Jacques de Groote, former director of the IMF and CEO of the World Bank. What is commonly referred to as the 'MUS affair' concerns the privatisation of MUS (Mostecká Uhelná Spolecnost), one of the principal coal mines in the Czech Republic, which took place at the end of the 1990s. The case is complex: the privatisation of a coal mine, nearly €500m in seized assets, over 10 years of investigations, and 140,000 pages of evidence in the case file.

Astonishingly, nearly 120,000 pages of that evidence, in Czech and English, were not translated into French – the language of the court – and so were not available to judges when they were hearing the case. How did this happen? A Polish administrator, who lacked any legal training, but who the prosecutors chose to do the job on the basis that Czech and Polish are very similar (they are not) was the one who decided what documents were pertinent to the case and which should be translated for use in the court. The impact of not having a native-speaker, nor someone who truly understands the sensitive subject matter, cannot be overstated.

It lead to the conviction and prison sentences for the five Czech managers of MUS while de Groote himself narrowly escaped prison. He was however found guilty of fraud, no doubt a first for a former Executive Director of the IMF.

Not only in legal matters businesses are recognising the importance of hiring a professional translator. It acts like an insurance. In the legal sector, as an insurance against prosecution and to bring out the true details of a case, in all its fine nuances. In the business sector it is a crucial building block in a company's success strategy. Once an organisation has spent time and money into carefully crafting and wording their image and representation, it would be grossly negligent to let a layman translate their texts into another language. The impact can be devastating. In the environmental sector, it affects a customer's or the audience's trust: The reputation that has been worked so hard for is at stake, even worse, a bad translation can be the first impression with which an organisation presents itself in a new market.


You can read the full article about the MUS affair and Jacques de Groote here: