Mind your language

Posted on 6 Dec 2013 by The Manufacturer

In the wake of export week in November and amid growing concern over the UK’s global maturity as it seeks to meet the National Challenge of generating £1trn from exports in 2020, Sophie Howe, managing director of Comtec Translations, gives some practical tips on cross language barriers in new markets.

Sophie Howe, Managing Director, Comtec Translations

Almost everyone I have interviewed regarding language and culture in international business has said that it is worthwhile to take the time to learn something about the country’s language – even if the other person speaks your language fluently.

It’s unlikely that you’ll immediately be able to conduct business negotiations in the language and I don’t think anyone expects you to, but it is worthwhile to make the effort – it can make you stand out from your competitors.

If you’re  a first time exporter you should bear the following in mind in order to give yourself a better chance of establishing fruitful export partnerships.

Firstly, even if your customer speaks your language fluently, learn some words of their language. A greeting is a minimum requirement. A little knowledge of your customers language will go a long way, demonstrating to them that you are willing to make an effort, but also often helping you understand better when they speak English. For example, understanding that Finnish doesn’t distinguish between genders or that Chinese has no tenses can help you make sense of potentially poorly structured English speech.

Secondly, it is worth noting and acknowledging that, according to research, Web users are four times more likely to purchase from a site that communicates in their own language. So consider translating your website to attract more international customers but always ensure you use professional translators – your reputation and brand are at stake and while no one expects your spoken language to be perfect, written materials must be professional.  At worst, technical manuals could have health and safety implications if inexpertly translated.

Whether speaking or writing, be aware that literal translations rarely work well, so don’t try to replicate turns of phrase or colloquialisms from English. Also consider that people in other countries often need to be addressed in different ways that may be more – or less – direct than in is usual in Britain.

Finally, language is not just about words. In some countries colours, numbers and symbols have significance that could impact on your communication or sales. Learn about these cultural customs, particularly with regards to the protocols for greeting people and conducting meetings.

This appreciation of language is essential to optimising business success outside your native home.

Think how aware you are when you see a website that has been translated into English in a rather clumsy way.  What impression does it give?  Are you less likely to trust the business?  What if you are spending £1000s with them?

It’s all about being prepared.  Embrace the culture of a new market and don’t see it as a barrier.

Learn as much as you can about cultural norms, people won’t expect you to change your style completely but at least you will know what to expect and you can adapt your approach so you don’t offend.

Comtec Translations has been providing translation services for 30 years.  They have expertise in over 200 languages and are based in Leamington Spa.