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Rhetoric and Rosetta Stone: Learning Language in the Digital Era

Posted At: March 12, 2012 12:10 PM
by Margaret Bishop

Photo by bixentro

Rhetoric is defined as “the art of discourse, which is an art that aims to improve speakers or writers who attempt to inform, persuade or motivate particular audiences in specific situations” (Corbett, 1990). In layman’s terms, rhetoric can be described as using words to evoke a certain response or complete a specific task. Rhetoric and discourse may seem like age-old topics dating back to Aristotle’s time, but they are still important today.

As public relations professionals, we use words to communicate and represent the very best of our clients. Although non-verbals and other communication strategies are also important, without verbal communication we would not be able to complete our jobs efficiently.

Furthermore, global PR has become one of the largest spheres of the profession. In this sense, word choice and the delivery of discourse have become critical — especially if translation to different languages is required.

Thanks to recent technology such as Rosetta Stone and Google Translate, learning and perfecting a new language is now much easier to accomplish.

Rosetta Stone is purchasable software that literally teaches new languages to users of different native tongues. The software is broken down into different difficulty levels and is based on the idea of moving from basic translations to fluency.

Google Translate serves as a convenient online tool that translates words from more than 60 languages. Users can simply copy and paste text into the box and translate it to another language with just a click.

The name Rosetta Stone refers to an actual stone that was engraved with several different languages all communicating the same message. The original Rosetta Stone was used as the key to the modern understanding of Egyptian hieroglyphs, thus describing the same message in various vernaculars.

Bilingual and multilingual PR professionals may currently find themselves on a higher tier of the PR world. The ability to speak multiple languages is a highly sought quality that places a special value on the practitioner. Global PR is an important aspect of our field that desperately needs bilingual and multilingual professionals, especially for technical communication tasks.

Desiree Mahr, a public relations professional at Jackson Spalding, uses her multilingual background to her advantage in her PR endeavors and endorses the value of speaking various languages.

“My foreign language background has allowed me to draft copy for the client in Spanish, which extends their reach to a wider variety of publics,” Mahr said. “With the diversifying demographics in the U.S., foreign language translation is becoming even more important to companies — if you’re able to speak a second language, it’s certainly a great asset.”

One of the most crucial principles in learning a new language and applying it to public relations is the difference between translation and interpretation. Translation is described as the literal, written meaning of a word, whereas interpretation is the action of encoding and decoding words verbally in a different language. For instance, someone may not excel at translating languages in the written form, but may be extremely talented at interpreting different languages verbally.

Jim Hanson, a professor of rhetoric at Whitman College, agrees that clarifying a message is extremely important in order to reduce confusion.

“Precise meaning is lost when something is translated, but in a sense that happens any time anyone else receives our words,” Whitman said. “Audiences have different experiences and interpretative modes that make what we say at least a little bit different and often very different from what we intend to convey. When you add on significant cultural and language translations, the difference can be quite large and at times create confusion, unintended disrespect, and a loss in the faith in the communication process itself.”

Because it is crucial to send a clear message when representing your client, it is critical that PR professionals, whether multilingual or not, understand that creating a clear and concise message is a must. Translating and interpreting could be considered as the “noise” within a communication model — the interference in sending and receiving a message.

Learning a new language can not only be beneficial for you, but for your company and your client. With technology such as Rosetta Stone and Google Translate, learning a language can be easier than ever before; however, take caution with literal translations and make sure you are creating a message worth sending.

Source: Corbett, E. P. J. (1990). Classical Rhetoric for the Modern Student. New York: Oxford University Press., p. 1.


  1. Post comment

    You hit the nail on the head in this article. The U.S. population is about 16 percent Hispanic. As PR professionals, our job is to create relationships with our clients’ key publics. If we ignore such a huge part of the population, we are one, not doing our jobs, and two, overlooking a potentially great opportunity. You mentioned how professionals who speak more than one language “may find themselves on a higher tier of the PR world,” and I completely agree. Spanish-speaking Americans could be a vitally important public for a given client, but how are we supposed to communicate with them without a bilingual staffer? Are we wasting our time and energy by promoting our client’s name and a positive image in the public sphere if it only can be understood by a portion of the population?

    This summer, I was interning with a public relations firm in Washington, D.C. I was able to rise above my position as an intern for the communications team and work with the minority relations department by translating national advertisements, calling Spanish news outlets, and attending conferences. After my internship was over, they frequently contacted me asking that I translate documents. Speaking another language is becoming increasingly important in today’s day and age and therefore a skill that PR professionals should strive to have as communicators.


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