Compliance Communications Blog

Are Your Compliance Topics Getting Lost In Translation?


Translate your message!A piece published on entitled Watch your Languages in International Compliance caught my eye the other day. This is in part because it amazes me that anyone is still trying to convince anyone about publishing anti-corruption and other compliance materials for your employees that speak languages other than English; of course you have to do this, and I believe few people would argue the point. Not surprisingly, appropriate translation of compliance materials was listed as a “Hallmark of Effective Compliance Programs” in the FCPA Resource Guide published by the DOJ and SEC in 2012.

But it also got me thinking about the variety of approaches to translation that I’ve encountered through years of experience and in my daily conversations with compliance professionals at global companies when we talk about the critical importance of communicating compliance messages well. It strikes me that there are four key approaches, some of which are more effective and productive than others.

  • IGNORE IT.  Just ignoring the obligation to translate materials is certainly an option. Not a very good one, if you ask me, but there are still some companies who experiment with this idea. By way of example, there was the recent FCPA case of Weatherford International, a Swiss oil services company listed on the NYSE, which did not translate compliance policies and messages into languages other than English – despite its global presence with operations and subsidiaries in more than 100 countries. As emphasized by DOJ Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Marshall L. Miller in a recent address to the Advanced Compliance and Ethics Workshop, “Although translation [of materials] would probably not, by itself, have solved Weatherford’s problems, the failure to do so certainly demonstrated that compliance was not a company priority.” Weatherford received $252 million in penalties and fines in that case.
  • PROVIDE BASIC, NON-LOCALIZED TRANSLATIONS.  Simply translating compliance documents and other communications from English into other languages without regard for local laws, customs, and policies – to say nothing of the cultural differences that make adapting materials a nuanced art – is an impoverished approach to translation. On the other hand, it is way better than not translating at all, and may be a very reasonable approach for companies just getting started in this area.
  • UNDERSTAND THAT CAPTURING CULTURAL NUANCE AND LOCAL LAW IS IMPORTANT.  Of the companies that really grasp this, there are two sub-types:
Those that get it and do it really well.  They will usually use a combination of in-house, in-country expertise on local laws and the services of a translation company specifically specializing in cultural adaptation (like my very competent friends at Language & Culture Worldwide out of Chicago). The companies that do this for every communication are doing it best, but these are few and far between.
Those that get it but are so overwhelmed by it that they barely do anything at all.  This, I’m afraid, describes a lot of companies. It can be a ton of work to produce compliance documents and communication materials just in English, and it requires a very high-degree of dedication to be able to get those materials into other languages in the way that will resonate best. Many compliance professionals have attended enough webinars to know what needs to be done, but become paralyzed by how time-consuming it can all be. This is not a place your program can afford to be.
  • DO THE BEST YOU CAN.  There may be a broad continuum of what this might mean (doing one’s “best” can vary widely from person to person…), but in general this is where I think most companies should be falling. What I mean is that if sometimes you are able to put out a highly localized, culturally adapted piece of compliance communication, then great. If sometimes you are pushing out a vendor’s off-the-shelf translation for a training module or video, then that’s OK too. If sometimes, because of budget, you are translating into certain key languages and leaving others untranslated, don’t feel guilty about that either. The main thing is to be striving for improvement, demonstrating that you are doing the best you can with the time and money you have available. 


COMPLIANCE COMMUNICATIONS TIP:  Always try to improve the way in which you make localized and culturally adapted compliance document and communications materials available to employees around the globe. But whatever you do, don’t get paralyzed by the difficulty in getting that right 100% of the time. As with everything in life, doing the best you can is much better than any other option.

Morgan Stanley

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