Translating your company around the world

June 30, 2008: 10:05 AM ET

Translation software may have let you down, but there are other options for crossing the language barrier.

Sid Smith, The International Art Materials Trade Association, Huntersville, N.C.
As an avid reader of Fortune Small Business, I zeroed right in on the March 2008 story "Goodbye Language Barrier?," only to be disappointed in the answer, that current software packages are still very poor in doing electronic translations into other languages. As an association for manufacturers and retailers, we have members all over the world, and our Web site and e-mail lists are the only practical way to reach most of them. How are other companies, organizations and Web sites translating large amounts of information into several different languages? Can it be done inexpensively?

By Emily Maltby, Fortune Small Business staff writer
Dear Sid: Don't fret if your Dzongkha grammar is rusty. It's still possible to take your biz to Bhutan, or any other non-English speaking country.

Let's break down your options, which, of course, depend on your needs. Software may be your best bet if you are doing cursory research in another language or are translating simple text for personal use. Stan Bassett, President of, admits that the best software his team has tested is still not suitable for professional use.

"If you are trying to get the gist, software can get you through easy, conversational messages. But in that case, you might as well use the free online translators," he says.

When your messages are for public distribution and must be perfect in the destination language, however, you will need more.

FSB checked back with Nick Leighton, the small-business owner who tested the software packages in our March issue. Leighton's PR firm NettResults works in Korea, Japan, Russia, Italy and other countries around the world, and he must ensure that the 30 pages that get translated each day for his clients are conveyed correctly.

"We rely on professionals outside the company to translate and also on bilingual teams internally to rewrite it to avoid misinterpretation," says Leighton. "It's not just about the words; it's about the culture. In the U.S., you can say 'run like a deer' but in the Middle East, it makes more sense to say 'run like an oryx.' These nuances even exist for the same language, such as Spanish for Mexicans and Spaniards."

Darren Jensen, COO of Agel, a nutritional-supplements company based in Provo, Utah, helped launch his company simultaneously in 12 countries. Agel set up a back office that deals just with the company's Web site, to facilitate changing the site into additional languages as the company expands.

"Make sure it is easy from the back-end to modify the site," Jensen recommends . "That way, your Web site will adapt to whatever the default language is for the consumer's computer."

Jensen tried software and quickly found out that human translators are essential to both build the Web site in multiple languages and grow the company internationally.

"When we started, it was essential that we have staff in each country, namely, operations managers and finance managers, who were bilingual. It disrupts the flow of the company if key people abroad can't communicate," he says. "But to consolidate our customer service in the U.S., we looked for an area with a quality work force that spoke every language possible. Brigham Young University caters to Mormon missionaries who speak dozens of languages, so that's where we decided to be headquartered."

Chuck Cherel of Languages Unlimited in Vienna, Va., a translation agency that specializes in patents, agrees that universities are a great place to tap into local talent: "Ask the language departments if they have any seniors with a B.S. or B.A. in French who may want some side work. That's also the least-expensive way to get human translators working for your company."

But Cherel notes that hiring professionals is the most reliable way to go.

"Firms that specialize in translating can translate 2,000 to 5,000 words a day and can handle technical, legal, and other special-industry vocabulary," he explains. "Plus, reliable translation firms require more than one set of eyes to look at the assignment and, if necessary, editors can debate meaning. If they can't come to a conclusion, they can describe the discrepancy to the client and ask for the client's preference."

Rates for most translation firms depend on the language, the assignment and the deadline. Some firms charge per word count (Leighton pays his outside translators about $40 per page, defined as 250 words) while others like Languages Unlimited charge between $25 and $100 per hour.

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