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The International Entrepreneur – Valuing Translation and Interpreters

As the Latin American technology markets heat up, the rest of the world is engaging and trying to make inroads into these potentially lucrative markets. Decreased communication and travel costs combined with lower trade barriers in recent years have make it infinitely more cost effective to enter markets like Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Panama and Mexico. But the one aspect of doing business in Latin America or anywhere else where there are no short cuts is TRANSLATION.

Let’s look at the areas where troubles can sprout:

Shortchanging Critical Branding in Marketing Copy

Marketing copy is key to a company’s branding. There are a variety of free tools that will translate your website pages into many languages.  These free tools are never geared towards industry terminology. The translation is oftentimes incorrect for the situation. What this says about your company in other languages is that your company is careless and cheap. I don’t know of many companies looking to include these traits in their branding.

Google Translate as a Starting Point, Not the End Point, for Key Communications

Free online translation tools like Google Translate can be very helpful when translating basic information. But when used incorrectly, it can cause misunderstandings as well. For any important written communications in another language with partners, clients and potential clients, consult with a trusted professional translation resource to verify what you are about to send.

Hire Two Local Interpreters Instead of One

This may sound like overkill, but constant interpreting between two languages takes an enormous amount of energy. If your business dealings will require more than two hours’ worth of interpreting, hire a second interpreter so that the pair can take turns. Also, it is not unusual for the listening interpreter to catch mistakes. Ideally, the interpreters will not only speak the local dialect, but also have familiarity with your industry’s terminology.  It is also helpful if your interpreter has cross-cultural experience with your culture and the one you are visiting. The classic example of this came from U.S. President Nixon’s first envoy to China. The Chinese famously compliment others but deflect any compliments returned. The common reply to a compliment is “Where? Where?” (meaning who are you giving this compliment to – because it certainly couldn’t be me who is being called smart, handsome, clever, etc.) The Nixon team was continually confused by the where question. A translator familiar with both cultures might have clarified the misunderstanding sooner.

Dialect Changes Everything

In the U.S., we all chuckle when a European visits our office and asks for a rubber. A rubber in Europe is a pencil eraser and a rubber in the American dialect. Good-natured professionals from both sides of the Atlantic usually consider this to be a humorous situation. The other common English dialect pitfall is the word “root”. In the U.S., we root for a team to win a game (root = cheer). In Australia and New Zealand, it has a much more vulgar meaning. I leave you to translate that situation with a trusted Aussie friend.  Nuances of dialect are like walking through a minefield. Spanish, in particular, has widely varied word usage. A translator must be familiar with ALL of the dialects to avoid being misinterpreted. A professionally certified translator will significantly lower your risk of looking foolish at best and incompetent at worst.

Most growing companies need to make do on shoestring-sized product marketing and business development budgets. There are many places where a company can cut corners without many consequences, but translation and interpretation should not be among your corner-cutting options.

4 responses to The International Entrepreneur – Valuing Translation and Interpreters

  1. Becky, you have a lot of excellent advice for people working in foreign language environment. Some thoughts on working in a Chinese environment:

    An American manager who spoke no Chinese once told me he estimated roughly 20% of every conversation he had was lost in translation, even when he was working with a skilled interpreter. I believe this is a pretty accurate assessment. Interpretation is a very difficult business, even for people with good language skills. Suggesting that people work with two interpreters when possible is an excellent idea.

    Help an interpreter get it right. Speak clearly and divide your thoughts into relatively short spoken segments. If you speak for three or four minutes without a pause, your interpreter will be hard pressed to keep up and get everything you said.

    Google Translate and software tools like it are simply not up to going from Chinese to English. They can sometimes give a general idea of meaning or help with vocabulary, but just as often get the meaning of Chinese sentences wrong or come up with gibberish in English. People who rely on tools like this for Chinese/English or English/Chinese translations are kidding themselves.

    Last but definitely not least – don’t ever skimp on your budget for translators/interpreters. Your ability to be effective in a foreign language will be key to success in overseas markets.

    • Thank you so much for your perspective, Steve. Even a marginal translation can undermine your marketing brand in a foreign market. I learned my lesson the hard way years ago when I used an online translation tool to turn my well-meaning message from English to Korean. When my Korean contact gave me a look like he would rather punch me than continue professional relations, I knew that I had made a big mistake. I’d rather conduct business in ways that doesn’t drive my counterparts towards feeling contempt for me.

    • I have to wonder if that 20% is not much higher. Most communication is non-verbal and the non-verbal cues in Chinese are different. Throw in cultural differences in how business is conducted, cultural communication differences and it could easily be a mess.

      What I really like about Becky’s thoughts here is the two interpreters. It gives them a break and allows them to support one another. The one that is not actively translating can also do some cultural translation.

      We did some Chinese/English interpretation work for a business/sales meeting recently. It is not one of our main offerings and we’re pretty selective when we do this. In this case, the deal did not go through. Based on the feedback after the meeting ended, there were some basic cultural issues.

      The real issue was that the buyer and seller were at very different stages of the selling process. The buyer was in exploration phase and the seller was trying to close. One reason for the difference was lack of cultural understanding. The buyer was sending cues that the seller did not understand. Our interpreter was only there for one meeting and was so busy translating that she was unable to help them with this gap. In the end, I suspect and fear that not only did the seller not land a deal, they actually harmed the business relationship. I hope the damage was not beyond repair.

      The company should have used translators familiar with sales in China and in the US much earlier in the process. They could have saved money on expensive trips and plane fares to demonstrate their wares. They would also have been better served with two translators during this meeting. This would have allowed the interpreter that was not actively working to translate the cultural and business concerns. The sales company would not have landed a deal that day, but they would have improved their chances of landing a deal in the future.

      • I appreciate you sharing this story, Mike. I agree with you – interpreters can’t save a situation if the underlying process and cultural differences are not understood. Many company leaders I have talked to I would say underestimate the need for cross-cultural training. If a company is truly serious about directly entering a new market, then cross-cultural training can save time and other resources while improving success rates.

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