Do You Have To Speak A Foreign Language To Be A Global Trader?

If you want to be a global trader, you don't have to speak the language like a native but it's sure a good idea to know something of the language in your target market.

I can tell you from personal experience that any effort made toward trying to speak the local language will go far toward building good will. If nothing else, learn a few key words.

I've discovered in my travels throughout the world that I could pretty much get by anywhere if I knew the local words for "hello," "thank you," "good-bye", the numbers "1, 2, 3" and "where is the bathroom?" A personal suggestion: learn that last phrase first!

Yes, the language of international business is still English but any knowledge of the other country's language can humanize you and let the foreign trade partner understand that you value him and his culture.

Most of your communication can be in English but a good translator (or someone with a real familiarity with the language) can still prove valuable. Sometimes the communication - even if written in English - may take a tone that might suggest anger or frustration. Someone knowledgeable with the language or culture might be able to explain the tone - before you say or do something you'll regret.

More often you'll be involved (or you may want to get smart about, in case you're asked) in translating catalogs and sales material.

If you're an intermediary - someone acting on behalf of a supplier, for instance -- it's important to remember that your supplier put a lot of effort into developing a catalog that will appeal to his English-speaking customers. He's probably inordinately proud of it.

Your sad duty is to inform him that, alas, he must start over. There are subtleties in language that can become critical when doing business in a culture with dramatically different cultural expectations.

In other words, knowing the language is not good enough. Your sales material especially has to be translated with a deft touch. Unfortunately, computers do not have this touch. There is just no substitute for human translators.

I'm aware of one company that needed a 200-page catalog translated from English to Spanish and to save money, they used a computer translation. You can probably figure out what happened next. The computer made such a mess of the catalog that the company had to pay a translator anyway to sort out the mess. Expenses. Wasted time. Bad deal.

The matter of finding a good translation service isn't just a luxury. It can mean the difference between success and failure in setting up a viable trade program. You can add value for your supplier by pointing out four key attributes of a top-notch translation service.

Ability. It's important that your translation service employ native speakers of the language you're translating into. The reason? They are able to capture nuances of the language and the culture that non-native speakers - no matter how well schooled - are likely to miss.

Understanding. Your translators must have a complete understanding of products and descriptions in your supplier's catalog. This is important. When you speak with them, determine from their feedback if they have an understanding of your products and a willingness to learn about them. Ideally, a company representative (it could be you as the intermediary) should be available to answer questions about the products in the catalog.

Consistency. Remember what I said earlier about the time your supplier put into developing the original catalog? Make sure you choose a translation service that's sensitive to your style. You want the translation to be consistent with the visual and written style you have chosen (assuming that style is not going to offend readers in your target audience!). And ask the translation service if you can use the same translators for future catalog updates.

Meet Deadlines. I probably should have listed this first. The service must be able to meet hard deadlines. Don't overlook your role in the process. Provide needed text and supporting materials as early as possible to ensure your translator does the very best job. If you're preparing multiple catalogs at the same time (a good idea because renting presses can be expensive), the ability of your translation service to meet deadlines is even more important.

Dennis Hessler is the publisher of The Computer User's Guide to Running Your Own Exporting Company and numerous other books, video tapes, software packages and The International Trade Connection newsletter which is designed to show entrepreneurs new to exporting how to get involved in the booming global market.