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When communicating with colleagues and/or suppliers from countries like India one will occasionally communicate with people who write emails such as this:

Dear X

Let us know payment. If you done kindly share payment swift copy.

Best regards,

Y

Typically they are still decipherable (this one easily is, but it was a short and clean example), but there have been cases where I couldn't and recently misinterpretation resulted in some serious tension. Is there any way to politely ask them to just write it in their native language and use Google Translate? Assuming of course that I know they are from a region where the local language is well supported by Google (e.g. Hindi to English). I wouldn't even mind putting it in Google Translate myself, but it feels like there is no way to suggest this politely, without in any way insulting their effort writing it in English (English isn't my first language either). It just feels like it would make both our lives easier.

Just to be clear: I am not trying to order them to do something different, I am asking how to propose something which I believe will improve the efficiency for both parties. I am aware that this only makes sense to ask if I know for sure that they speak a language which translates well to English.


Lastly, asking for clarification works fine when it's clear that something is unclear, but I received a while ago an email like:

We won't not do it.

Which we understood to mean 'We are against it, but we are not refusing it outright' (that worked with the rest of the context of the mail), but it actually was supposed to mean 'We seriously won't do it'. Turns out their language uses double negatives as intensifiers and at the end we had a good laugh about it, but it did take a bunch of confused emails back and forth and a tense call before we realized what had happened.

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    Could you phrase it that if they write in their native language, then you can Google Translate it directly to your own native language? Making it more about your English than theirs, which should remove any implied offence. – Mohirl Mar 31 at 15:32
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    Sidenote: DeepL seems to have (1) better results than Google Translate and (2) is more private (however, they still hold copies of the texts). – BlueCacti Apr 1 at 11:04
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    Not enough rep to add an answer, but I'd counsel against (1) relying on mechanical translation for anything where you definitely want to avoid ambiguity, and (2) assuming that they didn't already use it themselves. translate.g.... isn't a miracle-worker. – Will Crawford Apr 1 at 11:34
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    Using Google Translate is often what causes this sort of gibberish English. Do you know that these people aren’t already Google Translating their e-mails to you? – Janus Bahs Jacquet Apr 2 at 11:06
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    Using double negatives as intensifiers? I ain't no grammar expert, but that's absurd! – Pikamander2 Apr 2 at 15:39
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Straight to the point, you can't politely tell someone that their English is worse than a Google translate. If you want to remain polite, you have to stick with someone's best effort to communicate with you.

Some people also pointed out in the comments that it may be against your company privacy rules to use a 3rd party service for inside communication.

When in doubt, you can rephrase back what have been said to you until you reach mutual understanding. This is possibly effective because most people's ability to understand English exceed their ability to express themselves in it.

Dear Y

I understand you want us to send you a SWIFT copy after payment. Is that correct ?

X

Moreover, this gives them the opportunity to improve their professional English — something Google Translate doesn't offer.

So if you want to remain professional, stick to using simple English, clarifications, and double-check you understand each other well.

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    Damn I even do this for people who speak perfect English sometimes. Showing someone you understand them is a good thing and should be encouraged. More than once a project has gone off the rails because this wasn't done, and it had nothing to do with language fluency. – corsiKa Mar 31 at 0:35
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    This is a very good answer (+1) - I would just simplify the feedback message even more to avoid multi-layered constructions (such as "we understand ... you want .. us ... say when ... payment issued ... share") – WoJ Mar 31 at 7:57
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    Doesn’t swift in the original message just mean as soon as possible (i.e. please hurry up)? – Michael Mar 31 at 11:42
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    @Michael I was wondering the same. It is either quick of Swift-banking code, but I can't tell from that example. And given the payment context something is to be said for either. – Tonny Mar 31 at 13:10
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    @chux-ReinstateMonica Ok, so I reverted that change :) – Arthur Hv Apr 1 at 13:24
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Ask them to send the message in both languages, to "make their intent clearer", or "for curiosity", etc.

That way you can google-translate the message at your leisure.

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    I've done this a lot myself in the past, and most people seem to pretty ready to accommodate it with little to no explanation as to why, especially if they're from a society where multilingualism is reasonably 'normal'. Interestingly, I've noticed that for some people it actually results in better quality for the English message as well. – Austin Hemmelgarn Apr 2 at 15:38
  • @AustinHemmelgarn Probably because translating "what I wrote down in my native language" -> English is easier than translating "whatever is in my mind" -> English. – gnasher729 Apr 5 at 14:00
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Having had this problem in the past, I ended up moving some critical parts of the communication to a web form where the choices were binary (or several possibilities but only one choice).

This had the advantage to save everyone's face ("this is the new ordering/planning/whatever tool") and to clarify the answers (or questions) because there was no room for cultural interpretations, exactly like in your example (or at least they were extremely limited).

This is extra work and is useful in some cases only (when the communication is predictable) but it is one extra data point for your consideration.

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  • I like this for multiple reasons. If a process' flow is fairly static or has a static decision tree, this would increase productivity and decrease errors – BlueCacti Apr 1 at 11:06
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I think you overestimate the sensitiveness of your colleagues and their opinion about their own English level. They probably realize it's bad, and most of them would be happy to make your life easier if they knew how.

There's nothing impolite about telling someone they are hard to understand and suggesting a solution. Just don't dwell on it, don't be condescending and don't comment on someone's skills in a e-mail that has more than one recipient.

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Meh. Google translate is so utterly bad, not only is it an insult even to the worst Indian Inglish speaker, but also the quality is not guaranteed to improve. Google translate admittedly does work reasonably well for some languages (e.g. English→ Spanish→ English) but it is abysmal for many others, especially some Asian ones.

Also, I'm afraid that the problem may be with you rather than the Indian guy. Looking at the snippets that you posted, it is immediately obvious to me what they want (and no, I'm not a native English speaker).
You know, you don't hire people in India because they're English professors. You don't hire them to discuss the works of William Butler Yeats. You hire them because you want some work done, and you want it cheap.

Let us know payment. If you done kindly share payment swift copy

They want money, and they'd like to be informed and receive a copy of the transaction document. Which, as it is an international transfer, happens to be called the SWIFT receipt (a common term). They'd like a copy of that. A swift copy.

Hell yes, it's not poetry, I'll admit to that. But truly, what's the difficulty in understanding what they want?

We won't not do it.

They're not going to do it!

Oh right, there's a double negation in there. However, unless a text reads: "Well, OK. We won't not do it (note emphasis). But actually we wouldn't..." there's not much doubt about what they're trying to say. Most definitively, they do not intend to not double-negate in a not doubly-negating way. Why would they try to be super clever like that when they risk being misunderstood?
Either way, the correct approach would be to answer: "I understand that you are not going to do it. So, explain the reason for hindrance / escalate to supervisor / instead I request / instead I suggest...".
It takes one email, not a dozen.

So you discovered that human speech (including, and in particular English) can be inaccurate from a purely semantic point of view, but still the meaning remains obvious (most of the time) because there are conventions, and there is context. That's why Google translate is so utterly bad, too. No matter how much you stress the "I" in AI, computers are not intelligent.

Aren't you eating? If this is being asked while you are in fact not eating, what do you answer? Do you think your factual, correct answer will correlate with the other person's intent? Also, what do you answer if you do or do not intend to eat in a minute?
Would you be surprised if you learned that in some languages the answer will be exactly the opposite ("no" instead of "yes")?

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Having worked with many people from other countries before, my advice is just have a phone call or a Skype meeting with them to clarify. There is the time zone issue which will make it a little inconvenient but you'll get an order of magnitude better results with real time communication VS email. Save email only for simple facts. Anything more have a phone call

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    I find this does not work well if the other side needs a dictionary just to write English. Speaking English in real-time won't be possible for them. – MSalters Mar 31 at 13:15
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    I'm with MSalters on this one, personal experience has shown that spoken English is even harder to interpret in these cases. Most often I had to do it the other way around - break of a call with the excuse of "bad connection" and asking for an email with the details, because I could not fathom whatever they were trying to say. – Falco Mar 31 at 13:45
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    Yeah. I've dealt with a number of off-shore support people over the years, and it's almost universal that email is preferable to voice. Voice requires a lot of things email doesn't: real-time parsing of what's said, real-time generation of what you want to say, being able to hear through an accent, etc. If someone's English-Via-Typing is riddled with miscommunications, you're probably not going to be able to communicate through speech at all. – Kevin Mar 31 at 16:18

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