International Business: Downplaying linguistic ability can sometimes be to your advantage in business

Published: Friday, Feb. 25 2011 7:00 a.m. MST

It is a saying well-known to most Americans — “Nobody likes a show-off.” Resisting the urge to flaunt your language skills can sometimes be a strategic benefit, and a measure of modesty may earn you a better impression.

The benefits of such modesty were exemplified in the aftermath of a disastrous 2009 German-to-English translation error. The German tuning shop AVUS Performance had “souped up” an Audi sports car and released it under the new — and horrendously offensive – name “Audi RS6 White Power.”

A German public-relations company — not a professional brand translator — devised this ill-conceived product name. The car’s color was indeed white, and AVUS’s alterations did indeed make it more powerful, but a non-native English speaker at the PR company was obviously oblivious to the historically racist meaning of “white power” in the United States.

AVUS’s misstep was innocent, but complaints, accusations and negative publicity flooded car blogs, news sites and forums across the internet. To salvage its reputation and the product, AVUS immediately needed to distance itself from the embarrassing mistranslation. It did so with the following press release:

“Dear visitors, readers and customers,

“We are very sorry and unfortunate for what has actually happened and is currently happening to our first press report. Due to a mistranslation of our latest project car the Audi RS6 V10 biturbo there were lots of radical right-wing rumors on all different blogs and pages that received our first press report. We distance ourselves from the project title it was done by our press agency which obviously mistranslated our German project name into English. Furthermore we distance ourselves from anything that has to do with that group synonym and we would also like to say sorry if anyone got personally touched.

“Deepest Regards

“The AVUS PERFORMANCE Team”

The text of the press release conveyed the message that a completely separate entity bore responsibility for this blunder. However, in the apology, the clumsiness of the language emphasizes the equally important message that AVUS is a team of innocent tuning specialists, not English linguists who would knowingly commit such an egregious offense.

After having just learned an important lesson in marketing translation, AVUS could have paid to have a native speaker proofread this press release. Nevertheless, as part of damage control, AVUS opted instead to emphasize its apparently imperfect linguistic skills in this one crucial announcement.

Similarly, modesty can be beneficial in other more common situations. When a U.S.-based friend of mine became vice president of a large Japanese-based technology company, he seriously considered learning the Japanese language to communicate more effectively with his Japanese counterparts. This resolve evaporated when one of his Japanese colleagues provided a keen insight — my friend needed to speak either nearly flawless Japanese or none at all. If he spoke broken Japanese, Asian colleagues may mistakenly perceive him as less intelligent than if he spoke none at all.

Not all cultures will unconsciously perceive incompetence in beginners who are learning to speak the native language. Some people will indeed appreciate any effort at all. To be safe, ask a colleague who knows the culture well before deciding whether to demonstrate non-fluent linguistic talent.

An incident at the 2010 Miss Universe Pageant underscored the advantages of holding back in a non-native language. When asked “what is one big mistake that you’ve made in your life and what did you do to correct it?,” Miss Philippines Maria Venus Raj raised eyebrows not only for her response’s content but also for her choice of words. Raj replied, “there is nothing major, major – I mean problem – that I’ve done in my life.”

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