Dubai Expo 2020: Will it be a welcome departure from the controversial Milan Expo 2015 which, amongst its many PR disasters, was accused of grossly underpaying its translators? Or will it be just more of the same?

The World Expo has always been one of the most anticipated events on the international calendar. It is thought that the first World Expo on record can be traced as far back as 1851, when an event called the “Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations," devised by Prince Albert, was held in The Crystal Palace in Hyde Park, London.

Over 130 years has passed and the purpose of the World Expo has stayed the same: to showcase the achievements of nations across the world through an international exhibition to which everyone is invited.

Milan Expo 2015
Milan Expo 2015

But far from yesteryear’s modest attempts to display the latest technological advancements to the public, the World Expo of today seems to predominately serve as a vehicle to amplify a nation’s image on the global stage.

Something of a World Cup of culture, World Expos are only held every five years due to the colossal cost and planning involved, and cities clamber to apply as potential hosts through a bidding process organised by the International Bureau of Exhibitions.

A once-in-a-lifetime celebration

Dubai is currently gearing up to host its 173-day World Expo under the theme “Connecting Minds, Creating the Future", which will focus on the key pillars of Opportunity, Mobility and Sustainability.

It is promised to be a “once-in-a-lifetime celebration – the largest event ever staged in the Arab world – [which is] set to welcome 190 participating countries, and millions of visitors from across the globe.”

Dubai - host of Expo 2020

We are assured by the Expo website that youth is at the heart of this 2020 Expo, and that the aim is “to create a meaningful legacy that will benefit generations to come, both locally and globally, spanning everything from innovations and architecture to friendships and business opportunities.”

But for many, the hangover from the controversial Milan Expo 2015, which was plagued by PR disasters, is still fresh.

From allegedly underpaying translators, to public protests about the rising cost of the Expo, to the 490-acre former Expo site on the outskirts on Milan with no plan for its redevelopment five years on, it’s clear that Expos don’t always live up to their hype.

So, will the Dubai Expo 2020 just be more of the same? Or can it learn from the successes and failures of past Expos?

Translators matter

It should go without saying that one of the world’s most high-profile international events should be accessible for an international audience – and that means, at the very least, good-quality translation of its website and key information, right?

In 2014, popular website No Peanuts! for Translators, part of a movement that supports decent pay for translators and interpreters, accused Expo 2015 of grossly undercutting their Italian to English translators.

The website alleges that, as a result, Italian to English translation jobs were not carried out by native-English speakers, but by non-native translators in “shameful working conditions” – which lead to some disastrous translation gaffes.

The Expo 2015 website opened with sentences like, “With Expo 2015, Milan is making itself available to promote the Country’s growth and be Italian ambassador in the world”.

Moreover, in keeping with the ‘Feeding the Planet’ Expo theme, the website introduced ‘Foody’ mascots, each with their own personality quirks: There was Max Mais, who “is truly persuaded to be a valiant predictive, able to predict future to everybody who meet,” and PIERA, the pear: “She practise meditation.”

Luckily, Dubai 2020 seems to have learned from Milan 2015’s mistakes, with its website (available in 5 languages) a masterclass in English-language translation and transcreation. Peppered with carefully crafted, punchy sentences like “eye-catching, mind-bending, taste bud-tickling, grin-inducing, good-weird, did-that-really-just-happen fun,” Dubai Expo 2020 is already proving that high-quality translation is truly one of most powerful marketing tools available.

A lasting legacy

So how is the planning of Dubai 2020 going?

The obvious investment in language services doesn’t guarantee the success of Dubai’s Expo, but it certainly signifies a reassuring level of professionalism and a positive, welcoming attitude towards international guests.

The Burj Khalifa, Dubai.
Burj Khalifa, Dubai

According to Ahmed al-Khatib, chief development and delivery officer, as of May 2019, 67.5% of the construction work had already been completed.

Structures are being designed to achieve at least a LEED Gold certification, the globally-recognised standard of sustainable architecture, “which is in line with Expo’s commitment to leaving a sustainable, meaningful legacy,” said Khatib.

Post-expo plans in the pipeline

After the Expo, the aim is to turn the Expo site into an innovative, thriving community for years to come – a project called ‘District 2020’.

Indeed, Dubai Expo 2020 has been predicted to add the equivalent of 1.5% to the United Arab Emirates’ GDP, boosting its economy by $33.4 billion and supporting close to a million jobs between 2013-31.

If we’ve learnt anything from previous World Expos, we’d be wise to take these forecasts with more than a pinch of salt.

But with each positive press story, we’re keeping our fingers crossed that Dubai World Expo 2020 will serve as a model for other international events on how to communicate with and connect the global community – all while leaving a positive legacy for generations to come.

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