Israel Stories

Thursday, September 01, 2005

Communication – Loses a lot in Translation

My First Job in Israel - Jan 2000

Sitting at my desk looking out onto the citrus fields dividing Tel Aviv from Kvish Geah I realized that I hadn’t understood a single word Boris had said to me. I understood the technical terms like database, interface and deadline, but I’m sure there was plenty of additional material I missed.

Its not just my inadequate Ivrit, its also my bad Russian and Boris’s bad Ivrit and English that’s makes our meeting a real, how should I put it, challenge.

Between us we speak the new Hi Tech language of Israel, Ivengian, Ivrit, English and Russian. The problem is that all the Israelis want to practice their English, the Russians their English and Ivrit and I just want to get the job done. I bet they don’t have theses problems in the UN. In fact the main difference between the UN and my office is one has solid polices they cannot articulate and the other is the UN.

I should mention at this stage that I share an office with three Boris’s. Each one from a different part of Russia, with a different accent. Delightful people to work with, almost European in their office etiquette, but do I understand a single word they are saying, absolutely not.

Now, before I get hate mail I should point out the fault obviously lies with me. Their Ivrit is better than mine, they shouldn’t have to speak English and if anything I should at least learn a few Russian phrases. The trouble is that it is standard practice for everything in HI tech to be in English. With only 11% of the world speaking English as a first language maybe everything should be in Chinese, which it might as well be sometimes.

So the three Boris’s and I sit together and they try to describe the nuts and bolts of our products and I try to translate what they say into some sort of specification. The specification is then verbally re-translated from English to Russian for the programmers benefit and is finally translated in to Ivrit for the benefit of some of the team leaders and QA.

You wonder why 95% of start-ups fail in the first year, they have an English writer, Israeli marketing manager, Russian programmer, French tester and American CEO. Now you may ask that at least the writer and CEO speak the same language, well let me quote my CEO “The English and Americans, two great nations divided by a common language.”

Communication within the office environment is essential to the success of any company. Communication in an Israeli office takes on a different dimension. It seems that nobody wants to speak his or her native languages. Instead of three people talking three different languages fluently to each other, you get a major headache as broken teeth and frustration spill over into what was formally a peaceful environment.

A few months ago Boris ‘three’ approached me and in his best English says “Der wis a Chechen, Muscovite ant Siberian all in plane, nearly to crash….” I’ve heard it Boris, thanks. Boris ‘two’ continues “so dey must to make the aircraft lighter more” It’s OK Boris I’ve heard it. Boris ‘one’ finishes the joke with the Chechen falling to his death. “Iss mush funny in Kiev, but we no laugh, iss sad, much sadness”.
Another occasion Boris ‘one’ sidles up to my desk “what watch you have” You mean what time is it, I answer, “Shalosh V’chetzi”. Boris ‘two’ shouts across something in Russian and Boris ‘three’ corrects me with “Shalosh V’rova” don’t you mean Reva I ask, Kin Ma Sh’Armarti, Rova” and so it goes on.

My wife’s smart, she’s a doctor. All day long she has to talk and work in Ivrit. I have to work in three languages and am rapidly forgetting one of them and not making much progress in the other two.

To be a good technical communicator, and by that I cover writing, marketing and some product management, you need to communicate effectively with your colleagues. Thinking that ‘all hi tech is in English ‘so I don’t need Ivrit’, is a dangerous way to live. At some point you’ll want to progress in your company and that will, to a certain extent, depend on your Ivrit. No one wants to have to repeat everything in a meeting for your benefit or translate office memos and minutes. There is also the social aspect. Going out to lunch and sitting in silence because you can’t follow the conversation is hard.

The language of Hi Tech maybe English, but the language of your country is definitely Ivrit.


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