Translation makes us worse at business

Though new translation technology is tempting, it won’t benefit you in the long run.


Waverly Labs  have developed an in-ear device that immediately translates what one person is saying to the other, in their respective languages. It’ll enable foreign friends to talk more, but it won’t necessarily increase their understanding, and they won’t reap the cerebral benefits of learning a new language.

Picking up another language not only allows us to experience foreign minds first-hand, it also makes us more effective thinkers.

As we all know, there are words and phrases which can totally lose their effect when translated. The Romanian ‘dor’, which natives describe passionately as a kind of nostalgia for all your fond memories that can’t be retrieved, can only be translated as far as a ‘longing’ or ‘yearning’ in English. Then there’s hygge, lagom and other ambiguously good adjectives from the Nordic languages. (See our more extensive blog on this subject here.)

The German ‘Alleinvertretungsanspruch’ translates in English to a ‘single representation claim’, and that doesn’t mean much of anything, does it?

And then there are some words/phrases that simply can’t be translated at all. The Portuguese, for instance, don’t have a word for ‘bully’. You can’t say that you ‘miss’ something in Japan. What existed in Sanskrit as ‘vilomah’ ­– parents that have lost a child – didn’t make it into English in the same succinct, melancholic form (unlike widow).

A huge part of learning a new language is the discovery of how people that speak that language think.

Understanding how cultures other than yours make sense of the world is an incredible useful skill to have in business.


The French, for instance, don’t make a distinction between the brain and the mind.

Germans, holistically, describe an action with its goal. For instance, ‘The man walks from the shop to his home’, instead of ‘The man is walking’ in English. So if you’re trying to quit smoking, we recommend learning German.

Mandarin, on the other hand, doesn’t use temporal phrasing whatsoever. A Chinese person would describe something that happened, or is/will be happening, with a verb in the same state.

The psychology involved in this, according to, makes the Chinese more effective savers. (In a sense, the future is already upon them.)

What’s worth remembering in all of this is that these foreign minds are both your customers and your colleagues.

Speaking of colleagues, there are more benefits to learning a language than the acquisition of new words and outlooks. Something tangible: it’s good for the brain itself.

The dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (the part of our brain that learns languages) is also the part that handles problem-solving.

To develop this cortex further is to become better at multitasking and filtering out irrelevant information. Ergo, learning a language also makes us, and the people that work with or for us, more effective thinkers.

Working on this part of our brain also lessens our propensity towards Alzheimer’s, in part by strengthening our hippocampus (the part of our brains responsible for storing and recalling memories) and by building up a higher density of grey matter.

That’s what contains most of our brain’s neurons and synapses.

All those synapses…

Brain cogs

Ultimately, translation is a surface-level fix of the problem of miscommunication. Just knowing what foreign words mean doesn’t necessarily entail an understanding of where the other person is coming from.

The easiest, and most beneficial way for this to be the case, is through learning the language of the other participant.

As a business owner, it makes much more sense to invest in the learning of other languages as opposed to tech, such as Waverly, that replaces the need for it.

If you want to talk more about how understanding language can help your business, email Chris.