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Lost in translation? Culture, language and the role of the translator in international business

John Blenkinsopp (Teesside University Business School, Middlesbrough, UK)
Maryam Shademan Pajouh (Teesside University Business School, Middlesbrough, UK)

Critical Perspectives on International Business

ISSN: 1742-2043

Article publication date: 2 February 2010




Issues of language in international business have been the focus of a growing body of theoretical and empirical work. This paper aims to contribute to this literature, focusing specifically on issues of translation. The role of translator will vary depending on the language strategy adopted, with strategies linked to differing perspectives on language in international business – mechanical, cultural and political. The paper examines these perspectives through the lens of a specific problem for transnational communication – “untranslatable” words and concepts.


Interviews were conducted with professional linguists (translators and interpreters) to explore how they dealt with issues of untranslatable but cultural salient words in their day‐to‐day work with international businesses, using the problems of translating the Farsi word tarouf into English as a case in point.


The linguists agreed that tarouf was an untranslatable word, and described their strategies to deal with this problem. The commonest strategy was avoidance, stemming from linguists' concern to maintain their professional standing with clients, a finding which reflects an emerging emphasis on the importance of context and relationships for understanding inter‐cultural communication.

Practical implications

The study highlights the crucial role of the translator in international business, and draws attention to the potential for cross‐cultural communication problems arising from mutual lack of awareness of culturally‐salient but inherently untranslatable words or phrases.

Social implications

Effective inter‐cultural communication is an issue of great importance to wider society, and business has historically been the commonest site of such communication. The study highlights an issue of considerable importance for improving inter‐cultural communications, contributing to a growing inter‐disciplinary literature in this area.


Much of the research on language in international business has focused on the emergence of English as a lingua franca, but the present study focuses on specific issues of translation and does so in an under‐researched location, Iran. It draws attention to a problem of translation not widely discussed, and shows how important this issue can be for international business.



Blenkinsopp, J. and Shademan Pajouh, M. (2010), "Lost in translation? Culture, language and the role of the translator in international business", Critical Perspectives on International Business, Vol. 6 No. 1, pp. 38-52.



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