Lost in translation: Eco product training in China


Tom Hill, Sustainable Products Manager

Lesson one of my week in China delivering eco-products training – translating sustainability learnings from one country to another is not always simple. To take one example, water efficient gardening products, such as water butts, are important in the UK but aren't particularly relevant in Hong Kong or Shanghai where most people tend to live in high rise apartment blocks. Air conditioning systems, by contrast, are common in China but are seen as being rather superfluous here in the UK.

However, much to everyone’s amusement last week I underestimated a more basic problem with translation.

My colleague, Daisy Chen, and I were in China with Kingfisher Sourcing Organisation to deliver a series of training workshops about eco products. It seems that no matter how well you know your subject area or try to tailor your message to your audience there's always an ample opportunity for a healthy dose of miscommunication and confusion to arise.

As part of the Eco Product Guidelines that we developed for Kingfisher, BioRegional has set a series of standards for paints that need to be met in order for them to be classified as being an eco product within Kingfisher's eco product range and those of their member companies, such as B&Q. One of the standards that we use refers to the use of eco-labels as a ‘method of identifying what types of paint can be included in the range’; paints that have a high quality, reputable eco label can be included and those that don't can’t.

Halfway through the session I set about explaining the details behind the standard but didn't seem to be getting my message across. Something was lost in translation. Now, it turns out that in Mandarin the word 'paint' is interchangeable with the word 'label'. Therefore, as far as my audience was concerned, I was spending an inordinate amount of time telling them that anything that has been painted, and as such labelled, with eco paint is suitable for inclusion in the eco product range (rather than that a paint need to have a specific eco logo in order for it to be included). Thank goodness I’d also illustrated the session with images and videos.

Lesson two of my week in China was – if you don’t want to be labelled (Ed. Sorry!) a fool it’s wise to bring some pictures and videos rather than rely on words alone and be very nice to your translator!