Slice of life: every month or so I attend a networking event for entrepreneurs in central Paris, less to connect with clients than to keep a finger on that pulse and enjoy the buzz and enthusiasm.
Last night’s get-together celebrated a dozen heads of tech start-ups who had done remarkably well highlighting “La French Tech” at the 2015 CES in Las Vegas, ruckusing up a Gallic storm that was heavily promoted in the French press.
Their energy was infectious, with each bringing an innovative gizmo along to our event for show & tell. Not concepts, not visions, but amazing projects they’d either prototyped or were actually shipping, with rounds of funding on the horizon.
As the evening went on, these trublions (a stab at a French equivalent of ruckusmaker) showed us clips featuring their products in action, one stunning sequence after another, with running commentary.
But here the plot thickened, at least for the translator in their midst: each of the first three films was saddled with distractingly odd English subtitles. (“Where only the bests is about the most important show of the world […]”).
When there is such a clear mismatch between cutting-edge technology and clunky, incoherent language, surely a learning moment is at hand. No?
Yet as I winced and re-winced and looked around that elegant wood-paneled room, one thing was clear: I was the only one wincing.
The explanation? Everyone else was a native French speaker. They all spoke English fluently enough for meetings, but just didn’t see the written mistakes. That’s language for you—non-natives rarely have the same sensitivity to grammar and style glitches in writing their foreign language, which is one reason why professional translators work only into their mother tongue.
Speaking out during the public session was not an option. It would have smacked of language police or schoolmarm, never a good move when trying to get someone to see a new angle. But the experience did make me think again about Seth Godin’s comment ten days earlier: “Getting people to realize they have a problem is more expensive than talking to people who know they have a problem.” These otherwise brilliant people in place Vendôme didn’t know (yet) they had a problem, although it’s inconceivable that the steady stream of American visitors to their booths at CES hadn’t noticed.
No big deal, mutters the cynic. After all, these guys had a successful show, who cares about the weird subtitles already?
Ah, but people do care, especially people who have poured so much effort and energy into their projects. So as we moved from the presentations to the buffet, I latched on to the sole American presenter and spoke privately with the French organizers. Who were very receptive. In the frantic countdown to the show, they explained, preparations had got out of hand and the subtitles had most likely been done in-house. (Confirmed by one of the CEOs over food and drink; he was not shattered, but still not happy—and determined to get it right next time.)
The good news: a language review is on the check-list for 2016. Because these people do care once they’ve been made aware of a problem.