Cross-National Industrial Relations: Lost in Translation?

There are many challenges in comparing national differences in employment relations.  Every country has its own distinct history, culture, economy and laws.  Pietro Manzella, a Research Fellow at the University of Modena and Reggio Emilia (Italy), has written an article on an often-overlooked challenge of comparative employment relations—namely, the problem of language and its translation across national contexts.  Manzella examines Italian labor relations terms translated into English to demonstrate the problem.

The language challenges that Manzella explores occur for significant reasons.  Often the laws governing employment relations are the result of compromise and negotiation that can leave the specific terms ambiguous even in the native language of the country from which they originate.  In addition, as real-life, on-the-ground labor relations practices evolve and develop, invariably new terms and concepts arise and others fade from use.  Once translated into other languages, labor relations terms and concepts are read and interpreted by readers based on their own distinct historical and cultural contexts that may result in infusing the translated terms with meanings unrelated to those intended by the author. As Manzella demonstrates, numerous difficulties arise making the understanding and use of cross-national labor concepts difficult even in the high-tech globalized world we live in.  

An example:
The Italian word “caporali” is used in Italy to refer to individuals who act as unauthorized intermediaries “for the recruitment of casual workers to operate in the agricultural sector” (Manzella 2015 p. 17).  The term denotes negative attributes such as abuse, exploitation and illegal activities.  In documents where the term is translated into English, it is often referred to as “gangmaster.”  However “gangmaster” is also a term in English and widely used in the UK.  Further, gangmasters in the UK are subject to strict licensing requirements and regulations and there is no connotation of the term with abuse, exploitation or illegal activity.  Its connotation in the UK is quite the opposite from that in Italy.

Manzella offers many other enlightening examples as well as advice including the value of greater language proficiency as a tool in aide of understanding cross-national comparisons.  In the absence of deep knowledge of language and culture, he advises the addition of explanations for the terms being translated to make sure that the exact meaning of the national practice/concept in one context does not result in ambiguous or misinterpreted concepts.

Manzella, P. (2015) Lost in Translation: Language and Cross-national Comparison in Industrial Relations, E-Journal of International Comparative Labour Studies, Vol. 4 No. 1.

Available at: http://adapt.it/EJCLS/index.php/ejcls_adapt/article/view/260/333