If not everything, then at least every successful business happens for a reason. I cannot think of a business which has succeeded even though it does not have any purpose. Once a business defines the reason why it exists, it creates its mission statement.
What makes for a good mission statement? According to the Forbes writer Patrick Hull, “an effective mission statement must be a clear, concise declaration about your business strategy.” Hull stresses the importance of avoiding vagueness: “your company’s mission statement should be concise and specific so your customers understand your purpose and how you provide value to them.”
Because vagueness is undesirable in a mission statement, it also needs to be avoided in translation. A translator does not do their client any good if they translate a mission statement in such a manner that it becomes less clear and specific.
Unfortunately, the importance of clarity is often forgotten. This is the case for the Polish translation of Starbucks’ mission statement. You do not need to be an expert linguist to notice that the translation is much vaguer that the original text. It is enough to compare a few lines: fragments of the English text from starbucks.ca and their translations into Polish from starbucks.pl (all emphasis below mine).
1. ENGLISH: Our mission: to inspire and nurture the human spirit – one person, one cup and one neighborhood at a time.
POLISH: Nasza misja: inspirować i rozwijać ludzi – w każdej chwili: jeden człowiek, jedna kawa, jedno miejsce.
COMMENT: The Polish translator seemed to have a hard time translating the fragment “one person, one cup and one neighborhood at a time,” which indicates that Starbucks cares about an individual approach to business. The translation of that fragment is quite literal and does not make much sense. The Polish text blurs the message related to an individual approach to business because in the same sentence we have got plural “ludzi” (“people”) and singular “człowiek” (“person”).
2. ENGLISH: We’re called partners, because it’s not just a job, it’s our passion.
POLISH: Nazywamy siebie partnerami, ponieważ to nie jest dla nas tylko praca — to nasza pasja.
COMMENT: The Polish translator did not change the sentence structure of “it’s not just a job, it’s our passion” and translated “it” literally, as “to.” That was not a good choice because in the English text the “it” pronouns are empty subjects which do not mean anything. On the other hand, the “to” pronouns from the Polish text seem to refer to something but it remains unclear what that something is. The reader who wants to make sense of the translation needs to make some assumption about the meaning of “to” and guess that the pronoun refers to working at Starbucks. There is so much vagueness in the Polish text that it resembles a riddle which needs to be completed with missing bits of information in order to become clear.
3.ENGLISH: We know that as we deliver in each of these areas, we enjoy the kind of success that rewards our shareholders. We are fully accountable to get each of these elements right so that Starbucks – and everyone it touches – can endure and thrive.
POLISH: Wiemy, że sukcesy w realizacji wszystkich tych założeń przynoszą wymierne korzyści naszym udziałowcom. Ponosimy za to odpowiedzialność. Starbucks i wszystko, z czym się stykamy, musi się rozwijać i trwać.
COMMENT: Again, the Polish translator used the “to” pronoun which does not seem to refer to anything in particular. While the English text explicitly states that Starbucks is accountable “to get each of these elements right,” the translation is quite confusing and literally means :”We are responsible for that” (“Ponosimy za to odpowiedzialność”). The Polish text is not only vague but, yet again, it blurs the message related to an individual approach to business which is characteristic of Starbucks. Unlike the original, which talks about “Starbucks – and everyone it touches,” the translation does not stress the importance of every human being. Instead it mentions something which is very vague: “Starbucks i wszystko, z czym się stykamy” (“Starbucks and everything we encounter”).
I could keep going and provide more examples from the Polish translation but I think that the fragments analyzed above are sufficient to show how vagueness affects the effectiveness of a mission statement. The vaguer such a text is, the less effective it becomes. This is also true for translations of mission statements. If they are to be effective, they need to contain as few unclear words and phrases as possible. Otherwise, they may do the client more harm than good, just like the Polish translation of Starbucks’ mission statement.