Simple translation is a denial of cultural self expression

8 years, 5 months ago


Richard Linning believes that the time has come for new PR expressions in the vernacular.

Check out the word khadi or khaddar in an English language dictionary. With luck you will find it, and probably a simple meaning: n. Indian homespun cloth. What the dictionary does not and cannot provide is the full visceral impact of this word on those familiar with the Hindi words and works of Bapu Gandhiji. It cannot invoke the same emotional response to what the father of the Indian nation, Mahatma Gandhi, assassinated on 30 January 1948, called the ’khadi spirit’, "simplicity in every walk of life ... illimitable patience". (1)

There is a depth of meaning to words and to the responses they provoke which as professional communicators we ignore at our peril.  Words alone mean different things to different people. The then President of the United States, George W. Bush, learned this to his cost when he used the word "crusade" in the aftermath of 9/11. Seeking to evoke the spirit of General Dwight D. Eisenhower’s D Day invasion of Europe, "The Great Crusade", Bush only succeeded in attracting criticism from Europe and the Arab-speaking world. Particularly in predominantly Muslim parts of the world, the word crusade produces the same sort of negative reaction as the word jihad does in much of the West.

As the Greek philosopher Plato wrote

It is only when all these things, names and definitions, visual and other sensations, are rubbed together and subjected to tests in which questions and answers are exchanged in good faith and without malice that finally, when human capacity is stretched to its limit, a spark of understanding an intelligence flashes out and illuminates the subject at issue. (2)

Transnational circulation

Though primarily economic, the process of globalisation has also facilitated the transnational circulation of ideas, languages, and popular culture. And Public Relations.  Particularly the global spread of the marketing notion, expressed in 1921 by Roger Babson, that "The war taught us the power of propaganda. Now when we have anything to sell ... we have the know-how to sell it." (3)

Just as other aspects of globalisation are being questioned, it is time for Public Relations to step out of Plato’s cave: to stop looking at the shadows which mere translation casts and a explore the alternatives.

The language of the global penetration of the concept of Public Relations as an aid to marketing has been English. The dominant language of practice and rising academic interest was and still is English, particularly American English. Translating this "know how" has too often been literal, often without respect for local culture or practice. Audience research (for example) became recherche publimetrique (French), estudio de audience(Spanish), publieksonderzook (Netherlands) and ricerca sui livello di ascolto (Italian). (4) Think global, translate local.

The increasing sophistication and maturity of Public Relations practice across the world however, of its audience segmentation and targeting, has exposed the limitations of much of this "know how". Translate Coca Cola literally into Chinese and you get "bite the wax tadpole". Commercial communication in all its forms has also had to respond to the demands of clients who, unlike John Wanamaker, will no longer accept that "Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don’t know which half."  ROI (Return on Investment) demands a guarantee of reaching the consumer and delivering measurable results.

This is particularly so with the targeting of those we now call stakeholders; less shot gun today, more sniper rifle.  No longer is the  socio-economic classification system used by the National Readership Survey (NRS) and for market research – the six social grades of A, B, C1, C2, D and E – sufficient. Even the traditional focus group now falls short as a window into the mind of the consumer, often because participants aim to please rather than offer critical opinions or evaluations, frequently because discussion is lead and data cherry picked to support a desired outcome. The launch and failure of New Coke is cited as an example of this.


To the arsenal of tools now available to ensure that a communication punches the right buttons we must add neuromarketing. It is possible to lie to a market researcher – and we often do – but by getting inside our skull, neuro-marketers can more accurately predict how we will react to stimuli in the marketplace. By measuring brain impulses it is possible to measure all parts of the brain continuously: what we like or dislike, our level of concentration and even how much information we have retained. Our brain is now an open book to the marketer.   

And so it seems are our private lives. The currency of the twenty-twelve market place is people. That is why Facebook’s coming IPO is expected to command a high price, despite its relatively low profit record. Facebook has eight hundred million users and counting. But while the value of Facebook will be determined by a calculation of the commercial value of mining the data we willingly provide, there are real questions about whether on Facebook – as with market researchers – we are completely honest.  The award winning documentary talhotblond about the true story internet love triangle in which online lies led to a real life murder  is part of a growing genre of artistic works exploring this disconnect between the real and virtual worlds of the internet.

How do these developments impact on the real world of public relations practice when the individual is increasingly valued in the marketplace.  Individuality however is not a surface difference.  It is born, nurtured and deeply engrained within each of us according to the geographic, social and religious environment in which we are raised.  And of course in the language which we use to communicate.  It determines how we respond to external stimuli, for example to words such as khadi and crusade.

Recognizing that each culture is different is the first step to improving communication.  Expressing what we, as communicators, do and how we go about it in the vernacular is one way of acknowledging it.  The current lexicon of Public Relations terms represents another time and another, predominately Anglo/American experience. It is time for a raft of new vernacular languages of Public Relations which reflect and respect the new reality. There is no remedy against the truth of language. (5)


(1) Young India, 22- 9-1927

(2) Plato Seventh Letter , 341, in Walter Hamilton translation Plato: Phaedrus and Letters VII and VIII London 1973

(3) Quoted in Are American Teachers Free Howard K Beale New York 1936

(4) Glossary of Public Relations Terms in 7 Languages CERP Consultants 2nd Edition Editor Margaret Nally

(5) Diary of Victor Klemperer quoted in The Age of the Warrior p 144 Robert Fisk Fourth Estate London 2008



author"s portrait

The Author

Richard Linning

Richard Linning, IPRA Board Member, Fellow Chartered Institute of Public Relations

mail the author
visit the author's website

Forward, Post, Comment | #IpraITL

We are keen for our IPRA Thought Leadership essays to stimulate debate. With that objective in mind, we encourage readers to participate in and facilitate discussion. Please forward essay links to your industry contacts, post them to blogs, websites and social networking sites and above all give us your feedback via forums such as IPRA’s LinkedIn group. A new ITL essay is published on the IPRA website every week. Prospective ITL essay contributors should send a short synopsis to IPRA head of editorial content Rob Gray email


Welcome to IPRA


Follow IPRA: