Language For Export

The UK has officially left the EU and many of us suffer from Brexit fatigue. With the mutant virus not doing our economy any favours we could all do with a dose of positivity. Regardless whether you perceive Brexit to be a good thing for your business or the opposite, we now must focus on how best to deal with the situation and opportunities it presents.

The UK has been traditionally perceived as an attractive trading partner. Perhaps as a Third Country we might find it difficult to compete on price in the continental markets, however we could win our potential customers over by talking about quality in their own language. The right approach to export is now more important than ever.

Nobel Prize winner and former German Chancellor Willy Brandt said:” If I’m selling to you, I speak your language. If I am buying, dann müssen Sie Deutsch sprechen” (the latter part means in German:” then you must speak German”). In other words, for importing it’s OK to speak your own language, but if you want to sell your goods and services in the foreign markets, you must speak their language to succeed. Willy Brandt was German, and Germany is not only the biggest economy in Europe, but also one of the top performing exporters in the EU, so one can consider it to be a good piece of advice. Here is how best to speak the right language of export.

Exporters have three choices: use machine translation, such as Google Translate, use a professional translator or go somewhere in between and ask their own employee who happens to speak the language to do the job. Let’s analyse the pros and cons of each option.

Machine translation (MT) is free and fast, but it’s not very good. Sending documents and emails translated by MT could confuse, offend or at best amuse a prospective customer. Machine generated translation is poor and poor communication will undermine the exporters’ commitment to quality overall. There have been many articles written about the inadequacy of MT for anything more that a quick reference for your restaurant order (and even this can go horribly wrong), so I will not go into that in detail. The main problem with MT is that it translates words without understanding the meaning, the context, the cultural and business-specific terminology. A machine will not have the knowledge and experience of the language like a human native-speaker.

Moving on to the human options we have left. From my experience as a translator many businesses realise that MT is not good enough to seal the deal and they make enquiries about professional translation. Surprisingly it is not uncommon for them to deem the translation too expensive. I have run a translation business for 15 years and I believe that translation costs are not higher than costs of IT or HR consultancy. I believe that the reasons why translation is deemed expensive is because language skills are undervalued in the UK and therefore businesses expect the translation costs to be within similar range to cleaning costs. Whatever the reason, the British exporter tends to go for the next and final option.

Many small and medium size businesses I quoted either directly or through a translation agency decided to utilise a Polish employee to do their business talk on their behalf. Like MT, utilising somebody who is already on the payroll does not incur additional expenses. Unless the employee is a qualified translator, the quality of your document will be affected. Whether your native language is English, French or Polish – the facts are the same: not all native speakers can write to a high standard. Although a native speaker will have the cultural knowledge and understanding, it does not mean they will know how to approach the translation or that their grammar, spelling and syntax are up to scratch. Business managers are careful when emploing their sales or marketing staff making sure they choose the best people through their interviewing process and yet are happy to call a production floor employee to write or translate an email enquiry in a foreign language, just because they can speak the language whether they have relevant training and experience or not.

English is the lingua franca of international business. In many cases it will only be necessary to make the initial contact, as private sector businesses in Europe will be happy to communicate in English. However, the first impression counts. If the quality of the language is poor, when it is obvious that no effort was made, and all expense was spared in favour of cheap or free option, then the potential customers might draw their own conclusions accordingly. If the business doesn’t pay enough attention to the quality of their communication, how do we know if they pay sufficient attention to the quality of their product or service?  To be competitive the prospective exporter needs to demonstrate that quality and high standards apply to every aspect of their business and a professional translation service will help to achieve that.

Agata McCrindle