Design and Development for Global Learning: Translation

The story you are about to read is the 7th chapter in a series based on a composite of real learning leaders in real situations. The company, Delpharma, is not an actual company but, as you will see, it faces a very real challenge: how to deliver learning experiences in a global, multilingual, multicultural environment. Those readers who have faced this challenge will recognize themselves in this story. If you are interested in learning more, we invite you to contact us at and we will be happy to continue the conversation. If you would like to receive the ebook with all chapters included, click below in ‘Download the Full eBook Today”.

Lisa heated water for tea while Meera got comfortable at the kitchen table of Lisa’s New York condominium. As Lisa filled the pot with water, over her shoulder she said, “I have a couple different kinds of tea. I buy a variety pack because I don’t really know a lot about it. As long as it has honey in it, I like it.”

“That won’t do,” said Meera, reaching into her purse. “I am a bit of a tea snob. I travel with my own tea for emergencies just like this.” She walked two tea bags to Lisa.

“Z-hourat tea?” asked Lisa. “I’ve never heard of that. You are more than a little bit of a tea snob. By definition, anyone who travels with their own tea bags qualifies.”

“I learned about it while traveling in the Middle East,” said Meera. “When I found it in a local shop near my home, I bought three tin boxes. I have enough to last me a long time. It is made from herbs and rose petals.”

“I’m still going to put honey in it no matter what you say,” said Lisa laughing.

“That’s your call. On another subject,” said Meera, “have you ever seen the film ‘Lost in Translation?’”

“Of course,” said Lisa. “Bill Murray and a very young Scarlett Johansson. It’s been a while since I’ve seen it but I remember it was about two Americans stuck in Japan struggling to figure out the culture. It was a sweet story from what I remember.”

“Our next topic of conversation is about the translation process for learning,” said Meera, “and getting lost in it is a very easy thing to do.”

Lisa’s new job as the chief learning officer at Delpharma involved an enormous amount of translation work. Because the pharmaceutical company operated in twenty-seven countries with distribution centers in seventeen more, it had a global learning audience. Not every course developed was translated into all languages, but almost every course was translated into at least ten languages and there were more than fifty thousand learners globally.

Translation would become a major part of Lisa’s role at Delpharma, something Lisa knew and fretted about. She knew the role of the CLO well, having served several in that capacity in three smaller companies before coming to Delpharma. She had built and refined various production processes over her career from analysis to design, development, and delivery.

What she did not know well was translation and localization, at least not on this scale. Meera, her friend from graduate school nearly twenty years ago, had deep experience in both translation and localization as a consultant for Ingenuiti, a company with a nearly thirty-year history of doing both for companies all over the world. She helped her clients create systems so that each course was a great learning experience no matter the culture or language in which it was being delivered. 

Lisa invited Meera to join her in New York City, the global headquarters of Delpharma. Lisa’s husband and daughters remained in Detroit in the home where they lived for her last job. Lisa came to New York to begin her new role and get acclimated while searching for a new home for her family. The condo in which she was living was provided by the company until Lisa found more permanent housing for her family. 

Meera and Lisa had spent the better part of two days discussing learning in what Meera called a “global, multilingual, multicultural” setting, or GMM. In their conversations so far, Meera did not ask Lisa to change the content creation systems she had put in place at each of her former companies. She only wanted to think about those systems from a broader, more global perspective in which the voices of many would be heard and given considerable weight.

“What do you know about the translation process?” asked Meera. “Do you know how translation is done or what tools are commonly used?”

“I don’t know much,” said Lisa, “which explains why you are here right now.”

“In your last job, you had to translate courses into Spanish and French because the company had locations in Mexico and Canada,” said Meera. “How did that happen? What was that process?”

“Given our conversations over the last two days, I’m a little ashamed to admit that I didn’t think a lot about it,” said Lisa. “My team built learning experiences in English. None of my team members were from Mexico or Canada or fluent in Spanish or French, so we just went with what we knew.”

“Who did your translation work?” asked Meera.

“We farmed it out to a translation company, someone the company had worked with for a long time,” said Lisa. “I know it should have been you but that was a vendor I had to use. We would send them text, they would send it back, and we would rebuild the courses using the new language and voiceover as best as we could. I can tell you that the learners in Mexico did not think much of what they received, but by the time we released the course and got feedback on poor translation, months had gone by and we had moved on to something else. I know. Not great. But we were told to do our best and that was it.”

Meera did not respond immediately and stared at the city in front of her through the windows. Nearly a full minute passed before she said, “Look, I’m not trying to be overly critical of you because I know that you are aware of the shortcomings of that approach which, by the way, I see all the time especially in American companies. But I want you to imagine that you are an employee in Mexico. You are told you need to do some training. As you begin the learning journey, it becomes painfully obvious that the material isn’t actually for you. It is for someone in the US and you are an afterthought. Some of the material makes no sense. Some of it just sounds silly. Much of it doesn’t even apply to you and your job. What would that do to your sense of being a valued member of the team?”

“I get it,” said Lisa as she stared at her shoes for a moment. “A good example of truly being lost in translation. I am not proud of contributing to that bad experience. Help me so that I never make that kind of mistake again.”

“Honesty is a good place to begin,” replied Meera. “Let’s start with the basics. Translation means words in an original language being converted into a target language. Technically, we would call this ‘transliteration.’ On the surface, it sounds so simple as if language was like math.”

“But it isn’t,” said Lisa.

“Not even a little,” said Meera. “I’ll tell you a quick story about how damaging this can be to a company that doesn’t get learning translation right. I consulted with a manufacturing company in Indiana that custom built production machines locally, tested them, and then shipped them to Mexico where the cost per employee was much lower. The idea was that the machine did the work and that the employees were there to monitor and adjust the machines. When they were built and tested in Indiana, they averaged more than 95% efficiency. They were then taken apart, shipped to Mexico, reassembled, and began to produce parts.”

“Let me guess,” said Lisa, “production dropped significantly.”

“That’s putting it mildly,” said Meera. “Machines in Mexico were only 65% efficient which pretty much erased any benefit they were seeing in a lower wage market. And their customers were furious with the poor quality of what was being delivered which resulted in serious fines per their contracts. The company considered every angle looking for a root cause. Was the machine damaged in transport? Was it reassembled incorrectly when it arrived at their plant in Mexico? These were the first questions they asked but they were looking at the wrong possible causes. Then they went to a pretty upsetting question: were the workers in Mexico simply not capable of properly running the machines even though the instructions were fairly clear?”

“I wonder who first brought that up in a meeting?” asked Lisa, not expecting an answer.

“That’s about the time they asked me to work with them to understand what was happening,” said Meera. “I went to Mexico and spent time in the plant talking directly to the people who worked on the lines. They were bright, energetic, and a little hesitant to tell me what was really going on. Over several days that included some casual social events, I learned that the training they were receiving made no sense to them. The translation was terrible. Actually, a lot of jokes were told about the training over lunch. Some things were unclear. Occasionally they were instructed to do two completely different things. It was a mess. So guess what they did?”

“They learned to ignore it,” said Lisa, “and did their best to figure it out on their own.”

“Exactly right,” said Meera. “They were skilled people but these machines are incredibly precise and require very specific processes and adjustments.”

“I think we may have some of that at Delpharma,” said Lisa. “I’ve already heard something like that already.”

“To amp up the seriousness of this,” said Meera, “your new company makes products that people put in their bodies to improve their health or treat serious illness. The consequences of things getting lost in translation are potentially devastating.”

“So where do I start to make sure that never happens?” asked Lisa.

“You need to look at every component of every course you create in light of translation from the very beginning,” said Meera. “Voiceovers need attention. Is the voice the right accent from the correct region? Photos and illustrations on screen with words will all come into play. Actually, the location of every word no matter where it is on screen will matter in both its accuracy and how hard it is to change into multiple languages.”

“I know that some languages take up more space than English,” said Lisa.

“That is very true,” said Meera. “Most languages take up twenty to thirty percent more space than English. There are a few, like Russian and Finnish, that can be fifty percent longer. And by the way, contraction is also a possibility because there are a few languages that take up less space. Knowing the languages and making decisions at the very beginning will be vital to your success.”

“No more simply farming out translation work and hoping we can piece it all back together later?” said Lisa, only half kidding.

“That is not an option for you,” said Meera. “That is why the company I work for is successful. We combine learning, translation, and localization because all three components need to be factored into every learning project in global, multilingual, multicultural companies.”

“I don’t suppose I can just count on artificial intelligence to solve all my problems?” asked Lisa.

“Actually, software can do a lot and is part of most translation processes,” said Meera. “We use what is called ‘Computer-Aided Translation’ or CAT software that basically acts as an assistant to the human translator. Most of these programs have translation memories built in so that a word or phrase translated once will then be translated the same way going forward.”

“It tracks what the human translator does and makes sure there is consistency going forward?” asked Lisa.

“There are a lot of other tools that human translators use,” said Meera. “Every company has customer or product terms that are unique to that company. These are often words that need to be translated in very specific ways and are not commonly used. Tools like Translation Memories, and Terminology Management help translators track these and other words. Newer technology includes what is called Machine Translation which is even more automated. It is improving over time and is helping to speed up the time in which translation projects get completed. It also makes translations more consistent because Machine Translation can eliminate the problem of making the same mistake repeatedly.”

“Is it word by word?” asked Lisa.

“No, pure translation should be looking at the entire sentences or phrases with sentences that are often repeated,” said Meera. “ Sometimes the matches are exact and sometimes the software will suggest a match that isn’t one hundred percent accurate.”

“I’m hearing that humans are still involved, which is a relief,” said Lisa.  “I was getting ‘Terminator’ visions there for a moment.”

“You bring up a good point,” said Meera. “Skilled people are still at the heart of good translation. Software in translation is like software in almost any other application. It is a useful tool in the hands of a highly skilled person. Software can certainly enhance quality and helps translators be more consistent, especially when working in different documents separated by months. It makes human translators more productive in most cases, depending on the level of technical language, and it helps with scalability, a challenge you face with fifty-five different languages.”

“It sounds like translation is kind of part science and part art,” said Lisa.

“I hadn’t thought of it like that,” said Meera, “but that is exactly right. The automation in the CAT tools is science. It helps a lot with repetitive, monotonous activities. The art is the human translator who ensures that the true meaning of the source language is properly conveyed into the target language. It is helpful if the people doing the translating have a solid understanding of learning science, especially when they are working on learning assets.”

Lisa grinned at the last sentence and said, “Do you know any companies that have the art and science of translation along with a learning background that might be helpful to me and Delpharma?”

“As a matter of fact,” replied Meera, “I do. I’m here to help my friend who happens to have a really cool condo in the heart of Manhattan. If there is something I can do professionally through Ingenuiti to help you, of course, I would be interested in that opportunity. Before you make that decision, though, there are other topics to discuss.”

“Localization, right?” asked Lisa.

“Correct,” said Meera. “Translation is only one side of the coin. Technically, translation is a subset of localization. Kind of like the first step of making your learning accessible to people who speak other languages and come from other cultures.”

“My previous team did not give much thought to localization,” said Lisa. “We only translated into two languages and did not realize it was part of a larger process. I’m looking forward to learning more.”

“It really is fascinating,” said Meera. “I’m still actively learning about the nuances of localization and every time I gain some new insight, I understand the world a little better.”

“Let’s take a fifteen-minute break and dive in,” said Lisa. “Also, I have a little surprise for you to thank you for spending all this time with me. I’ve made reservations at a five-star restaurant just a few blocks away called Masa. Some people call it a sushi temple. It seats less than thirty people and we will be two of those people tonight!”

“How did you get reservations for that?” asked Meera.

“I didn’t,” said Lisa. “I’ve never even been there and I certainly could not have gotten reservations on my own. I asked our CFO for a recommendation, and he not only suggested it, he called and got reservations because he knows the chef. Dinner is at 6:30.”

“Now that is the way to thank me!” said Meera. “We will spend another hour on localization and then get ready for dinner.”

Lisa and Meera spent the next fifteen minutes checking emails and text messages before their next conversation, something both were looking forward to.

If you are interested in learning more, we invite you to contact us at and we will be happy to continue the conversation. If you would like to receive the ebook with all chapters included, click below in ‘Download the Full eBook Today”.

Picture of Jerry Zandstra
AUTHOR: Jerry Zandstra is Ingenuiti’s Senior Director of Learning. Dr. Zandstra holds two masters’ degrees and two doctorates, and he has been in the learning, training, and development space for more than thirty years. eLearning Industry has named Dr. Zandstra as a Global Learning Trailblazer for 2022 and 2023.