You might be shocked to discover one of the reasons clients discount the importance of translation quality. It’s an urban legend that has become so prevalent, even companies in the business of communication cite it as fact!
The urban legend has these variants:
What you, as a translator, need to know is that this misinformation can damage the perceived value of any language service.
In case any of your clients or prospective clients believe this urban legend (and I feel confident saying that at least some of them do), please borrow this little fact sheet to educate them on this area of language.
Here’s what to know.
Albert Mehrabian, a UCLA professor of psychology, conducted experiments and completed research in 1967. In his experiments, a listener analyzed a speaker’s general attitude toward him or her (rating it as positive, negative, or neutral). Importantly, his participants did not know each other.
Mehrabian found that when the situation was ambiguous (for instance, a speaker would glare, look disgusted, and say in an unpleasant tone, “I don’t have any problem with you”), a disproportionate influence of tone of voice and facial attitude occurred.
(It makes sense. When kind words accompany mean looks and an ugly tone of voice, we rely on those unkind looks and harsh tones to sort out a message – especially when we’re communicating with someone we don’t know.)
The professor concluded that in this particular experiment, with these exact conditions, “The combined effect of simultaneous verbal, vocal, and facial attitude is a weighted sum of their independent effects – with the coefficients of .07, .38, and .55, respectively.”
Much like the Bad Translator! final renditions, the facts of this study have been twisted and contorted over the years. First, “facial attitude” morphed to “body language.” Then, the coefficient of .07 that related “verbal” to “facial attitude” became the sole focus. Mehrabian’s work became incorrectly extrapolated as implicating that in any communication situation, the meaning of a message is carried mostly by non-verbal cues, rather than by the meaning of words. (Bad Extrapolator!)
If you think about it, we’d be up the proverbial creek if this “93% nonverbal” legend were true. Email would be just about impossible to decipher if you could only get 7% of the intended message. Phone conversations would be confusing and useless. We’d have to hear and see anyone to understand what they’re telling us. (Making your work as a translator null and void. Interpreters, you might still be okay.)
Does that seem anywhere near reasonable?
Yet the urban legend continues… and it continues to diminish the importance of the written word among those who haven’t been clued in on the truth behind the legend.