GUEST BLOG: Why going multilingual is vital for your business

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Posted by matt : Posted on August 9, 2011

Translation consultant, John Heywood, argues that language is crucial if you’re going to make a success of international trade…

International trade - language and translation

Exporting has never been more vital to the health of the UK economy. That’s the consensus currently being reached by amateurs and experts alike. The question is: are we doing enough, or is international trade an area where we need to pull our socks up?

Let’s start with the good news. The number of British exports is at its highest since the end of 2009. What’s more, with the Olympics just around the corner, demand for British goods overseas is set to soar. And with favourable exchange rates, expanding overseas markets and increasing support from central and regional government, it seems like there’s never been a better time to export. So the opportunities are out there. But are British companies taking them?

Unfortunately, it seems the answer is currently no. Or at least, fewer export opportunities are being taken than we’d all like. Why? A recent Financial Times report suggests that not only are small British businesses afraid to step out into foreign markets, but they’re also exporting less than the EU average. Much of this is to do with a lack of confidence: according to a British Chamber of Commerce survey, three-quarters of non-exporting companies believe their products and services are unsuitable for overseas markets.

Confidence will come with success, but this will only happen as businesses increasingly dip their toes in the waters of international trade. Success, as has been pointed out on this blog in the past, depends on research, having the right product for the right market at the right time and communicating effectively from the beginning.

Being able to communicate in the language of your target market is key – after all, if customers and key contacts can’t understand what you’re trying to tell them, how can you expect them to buy or promote your products? The point might seem obvious, yet the number of businesses who think they can trade effectively across borders using English-only materials constantly amazes me.

Take the internet: safe to say, probably the easiest place for your customers to find out about you and your products. What’s more, it’s a place where the number of foreign language (i.e. non-English speaking) users is rapidly on the increase. The importance of market-sensitive online communication has been demonstrated by a recent EU Eurobarometer survey of over 13,700 Internet users. Perhaps unsurprisingly, of those surveyed, only 18% said they would buy online in a foreign language, and nine out of ten said they always visit websites in their own language. Extrapolate those figures and you find a massive proportion of your customer base potentially being alienated by English-only communications.

Yet getting to grips with online foreign language communication isn’t as difficult as you might think. You probably already have the tools you need – your existing English language materials, website and marketing tools will tell your story exactly how you want it to be told. All you need to do is put it into words non-English speaking customers can understand.

To truly engage your audience, your materials need to be translated in a culturally sympathetic manner. Just think about the number of things that have different meanings in different cultures. Colour is a good example: red means ‘stop’ or ‘danger’ in the UK, but is a symbol of happiness in China. So straightforward idiomatic translations are not only far less engaging, they also risk cultural irrelevance, confusion, or even offense! This means translation needs to be accurate, but also localized. For example, your website layout and navigation might need to be adapted to fit the cultural norms of each of your local audiences.

Poor translation of websites for non-English speaking audiences has manifested itself in feelings of frustration and alienation for many foreign consumers. The upshot is an unwillingness to purchase goods and services marketed in a language that isn’t the customer’s own. In effect, language barriers become barriers to trade.

Some simple strategies can help counter these problems. Firstly, translation agencies and technologies can ensure effective localized marketing copy. Secondly, translation of simple messages, with a powerful call-to-action included, can be a good way to initially test markets without breaking the bank. Of course, to truly connect, localisation tools should be used to engage your audience from the off.

In short, the time for UK exporters is now. It’s just a case of research, research, research, and doing everything in your power to communicate effectively.

For more on how John and his colleagues can help with your international business communications visit

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