Iceland voted. The world watches – what’s lost in translations?

Following Iceland’s parliamentary elections on 29th October , the amount of international attention, support and scrutiny this event has been achieving is stunning. Far more, it seems, than the early presidential election was attracting, which took place on 25th June this year, in the midst of Iceland’s UEFA Euro 2016 success.

In particular, media coverage by the U.S., the British press and the German media is shaping public opinions.  Depending on their audiences and political standing, the views range from fairly enthusiastic to outright pessimistic.  Nations who have little or no experience with successful governmental coalitions color their coverage accordingly. A good selection of specific articles to gain a flavor in English and German has been reviewed and collected for this article:  The New York Times, Reuters US, the Financial Times UK, the Guardian, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ), der Spiegel, die ZeitSueddeutsche Zeitung.  Voter turnout figures can be accessed and compared to previous years via ElectionGuide  and IDEA.

Below: Icelandic daily papers: spilaborg means Kartenhaus in German but its actual reference in this context is House of Cards.

20161101_093259.jpg

In light of the fact that Iceland hosted about 1.6 million tourists this year and many of them have discovered or renewed their love of the nation, debates across social media are thriving.  In addition, many individuals from pre-election North America. and post-Brexit Britain are declaring interest to immigrate, ask for details and clarifications in social media and take a keen interest in the government formation process.

With an informed estimate of 2 million tourists expected in 2017, paying attention to foreign voices and opinions here is vital.  After all, Icelandic is not the language tourists tend to speak or understand. Salaries, wages and cost of living are often quoted in Icelandic krona (ISK), the local currency, with a rough estimate usually given in Euro or US Dollar. Unfortunately, foreign audiences tend to quickly jump to conclusions, failing to acknowledge that

  1. currency fluctuations are high
  2. the Icelandic living standard including aspects such as the minimum wage, taxation etc differ considerably from other nations such as the U.S. and Britain.

A nation’s reputation can be put at risk by mis-translations and misconceptions which in turn translates into expectations and assumptions incompatible with the actual reality. This in turn may translate into investment risk. In more detail:

A notion of Icelanders voting for an unstable governmental situation could potentially put off investors or pose risks to ongoing and new projects which rely on predictable policies, functional and effective governmental decision-making and dependable leadership.  The ability to borrow at affordable terms (c.f. German Bonds), expressed in a nation’s sovereign credit rating, is central to its functioning in international markets.  Iceland is currently rated A3 with stable outlook by ratings agency Moody’s – a rating that was only upgraded in June 2016 though (c.f. also Iceland’s Central Bank statement in English which does not yet reflect the latest change by Moody’s).

Forming a stable government and being perceived as able and willing to do so efficiently and effectively is not only important for the population of about of 332,000 people who have been enjoying the tourist boom as “a mixed bag” to quote a presenter at the Assembly of the Arctic Circle earlier in October 2016.  Rather, it also plays a role in light of the approved lift of capital controls imposed after its three largest banks collapsed in the financial crisis:

“On 11 October 2016, Althingi passed a bill, introduced by the Minister of Finance and Economic Affairs, amending Act No. 87/1992 on Foreign Exchange. With the Act, which is part of the authorities‘ capital account liberalisation strategy from June 2015, important steps are taken to lift capital controls in full. Controls on resident and non-resident individuals and legal entities will be markedly eased in two steps; first upon passage of the bill on 21 October and second on 1 January 2017.
[…]  Individuals are also allowed to purchase one real estate per calendar year and the requirement that residents repatriate foreign currency has been scaled down. On 1 January 2017, the aforementioned ceiling will be raised from 30 m.kr. to 100 m.kr. and transfers of deposits will be permissible subject to the same ceiling.”

Assumptions and mis-translations on the level of connotation rather than denotation belong to the most severe risks organizations and nations, but also individuals, can run. Actively communicating and managing the resulting misconceptions can be extremely difficult as the distortions remain often obscure, subconscious and seemingly minor.

However, they build up over time and as they become repeatedly re-communicated by large numbers they can solidify what would else have remained indeed a minor aspect of conversations uniting numerous non-native speakers.  However, in countries where dubbing of interviews, rather than subtitling, is common practice and audiences are denied access to the original statement, conveying much more than just words, the power shifts towards what the media outlet wants its audiences to hear (c.f. the IceSave debacle most unprofessionally communicated in the British media, BBC newsnight interview ).

As nation, Iceland is fluent in English – predominantly but not exclusively – and versed with linguistic and cultural differences between British and American English as well as the underlying cultural specifics.  Many Icelanders understand or even speak German and are also familiar with national perceptions and particularities.

The reverse does not necessarily apply, though.  Icelanders, in light of their limited number, may be restricted in their efforts and capabilities to correct misconceptions and misrepresentations resulting from language barriers or foreigners’ misconceptions. Icelanders hold different expectations of their business partners and guests, harshly advising them on mistakes or erroneous assumptions is not part of the national mentality. Awareness building and capacity building remain challenges Icelanders will encounter with growing numbers of tourist and virtual visitors.  Reputation risk may move up the priority list and gain a more prominent spot on the agenda, being more actively managed and valued as potential opportunity.

One comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s