Fortune & Folly in Financial Translation

Financial translation can be a particularly lucrative subfield in this industry, but with that reward comes an immense responsibility. Financial translators become the mouthpiece of whole corporations in foreign lands, indirectly responsible for the balance sheets of the firms and consequently the livelihoods of their workers. The security of staggering sums of money can depend on their unwavering attention to detail, combined with exacting economic acumen. As is always the case, translation is only ever noticeable when something goes wrong. Sadly, recent history contains enough examples of fiascos caused by lackadaisical translations to justify placing your faith in a thought leader in financial translation.

Finding quality financial translators entails some interesting problems. To maintain standards, we have to insist that the translators we assign to projects have tangible experience in the financial sector. With financial translations, this might take the form of a specialized postgraduate degree in Accounting or Economics, or alternatively many years of experience working at the coalface of the financial world within a bank. However, these two conditions often fail to intersect – once someone starts earning a banking salary, they may not feel particularly inclined to return to translation!

The difficulty of procuring all-rounders with professional training in finance and translation also becomes more acute when more obscure language combinations are required.

The key to successful financial translation is building relationships between the agency, client and translator. One-off translations risk failing to understand and capture the financial worldview of the client in question. To succeed in this task, the translator must adapt to their preferences for certain terminological angles. The importance of using Translation Memory software with refined client-specific glossaries thus takes on a whole new dimension of importance in this field. Clients return to agencies who seamlessly replicate their corporate tone and transmit that message across borders.

Ultimately, the language of finance is a code unto itself. There is always a challenge in combining theoretical understanding with pragmatic practice of both financial and linguistic nuances.

When you hire a financial translator, you trust them to navigate forests of terminological red tape. Annual performance results, stock exchange mechanisms, balance sheets, economic news and press releases, risk management, confidentiality agreements, conflicts of interest, letters to shareholders, market commentaries, the shifting technicalities of corporate law, and so on and on and on: it’s all a day in the life of one of our linguists. It’s interesting to just skim over the most routine challenges that our financial translators confront on the job.

A potential stumbling block is the fact that languages behave differently around numerical conventions – something that may not be obvious to the monolingual finance expert. To show the potential for slip-ups that come with these assumptions, we just need to consider how different languages and cultures deal with something as elementary as a decimal place. In the UK and the US, we always separate the integer part of a number from the fractional part with a stop – < . > – but in fact these are two of the very few places in the world that do this. For another, you have to go as far afield as Thailand. Many other countries, such as France, use a comma or ‘virgule’ to indicate the same thing. So a figure written as 9,999 would mean ‘nine thousand, nine hundred and ninety-nine’ in the UK, but ‘nine point nine nine nine’ in France. Further anomalies abound, as other languages use a space < >, an elevated < ’ > or a point < . > for other purposes. Languages like Spanish, Italian and Portuguese use points to separate groups of threes in large numbers as we would use commas. Therefore, an Italian bank would be comfortable with a figure like 125.840.763.000, whereas in English this would be interpreted as a meaningless numerical sequence. Or perhaps an arcane IP address.

Something as natural to us as where to put decimal points and commas turns out to be entirely arbitrary – yet for that reason comes with the potential for a host of nasty consequences.

Of course, you might suggest just doing as I did in the above paragraph to clarify the numbers and spell the numbers out in word form. This would come with the cost of making the translated texts longer and clunkier, but still wouldn’t eliminate all associated problems. For example, the denotation of term ‘billion’ should be universally recognised, but isn’t. The sense most commonly recognised, of ‘a thousand billion’ (1,000,000,000), is the original American value. This was not the case in the UK, where prior to 1975 the same term ‘billion’ could only mean ‘a million million’ (1,000,000,000,000) – a figure in a different league. It is interesting to note that this change was enforced overnight in 1975 by Dennis Healey, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who announced that the Treasury was switching with immediate effect to the American system. Do bear in mind that there are British people of older generations who are still peeved by this development 40 years on. When translating, it’s wise to check what your client means and wants.

These points may seem like the height of pedantry, but when bad translations concern delicately poised financial markets, chaos can quickly ensue. The infamous case in point came in 2005, when Chinese journalist Guan Xiangdong, a reporter for the China News Service, produced a report commenting on the theoretical impact of an appreciation of the Chinese renminbi currency. Her speculative words and figures were mangled in an unauthorized translation by the online paper The People’s Daily that made things slightly more concrete – claiming a currency revaluation “will be announced” by the Chinese government – at a value of +1.26% within a month and +6.03% within the year. Quoting the original news outlet with its close links to the state, this translated document hopped from trader’s inbox to trader’s inbox in stock markets around the world. Even Bloomberg publicized it, because it had the apparent validation of an association with the Chinese state. This phantom appreciation freaked out dollar traders who tried to offload everything they had in US currency, and to buy what they could in Asian currencies like Chinese Renminbi, Japanese Yen, and Indian Rupees. When the rival news agency Reuters cast doubt on the story, the pendulum of confidence swung back in the other direction, and there was a massive rush of people trying to reinvest in the dollar. Even though the dollar recovered quickly against other major currencies, some traders were badly stung as they were caught investing the wrong way round. What started as an innocent piece of speculation became a global financial farce simply because of a single dodgy translation.

While such incidents are infrequent, they are not without parallel. In 1994, the Commodity News Service published an article about the struggling Continental Illinois Bank, about which rumours concerning a takeover from a Japanese bank had been circulating. In an English translation of a Japanese report, the operative word ‘rumour’ had been rendered as the slightly more assertive ‘announcement’. This caused a rush on the bank by those who had placed assets with it, which meant that the state had to intervene to prevent further chaos – by bailing the bank out to the tune of $8billion dollars – American billions, those ones. Still, it was not an ideal sum of money to squander through sheer linguistic negligence.

The final example is an example of failed marketing translation that cost one of the world’s most recognisable financial brands very dearly indeed. HSBC’s call-to-action tagline in the US from the middle of last decade was “Assume Nothing” – which sounds appropriately prudent for a bank. However, as this slogan was translated into their global target markets, HSBC wasn’t getting the same kind of reception. That’s because ‘Assume Nothing’ had been widely translated as ‘Do Nothing’ – which is not the tone to strike if you want people to leave their hard earned money with you. The glitch was ultimately fixed – at the cost of a $10,000,000 exercise in global rebranding to “The World’s Private Bank”.

The moral of these stories from the multilingual finance world is unavoidably clear. The stability of financial organizations depends on security, trust and confidence, and their maintenance requires excellence on all fronts – and this is especially true with the unknown quantity of outsourcing a service like translation. The potential volatility in these fields is always too great to take risks with substandard translation services.