Language focus | 29.09.2015

Why translating out of English matters

With International Translation Day on our doorstep, we ask the question: do English-speaking businesses really need to translate out of English?

International Translation Day

Wouldn’t it be great if the world was one homogeneous mass speaking the same language? You’d never have to worry about language limiting who you could meet, what you could read or who you could do business with. Sometimes as a native English speaker, you’d be forgiven for thinking that this is already the case but the figures beg to differ: records have the number of native English speakers at just over 5% of the Earth’s population. Granted, there are roughly twice as many as that who speak it as a second and foreign language, and its status as a dominant lingua franca can’t be denied. However, the idea that the English language reigns supreme in business is unfounded, as echoed by the continued growth in demand for language services[1]. It follows then that the only thing limiting peoples’ international reach is not language itself, but the assumption that English is a vehicle strong enough to take your business overseas.

For those who already know why translating out of English matters, they know it’s a necessity born out of much more than just being able to convey a message to foreign audiences. The former West German chancellor Willy Brandt once famously said “If I am selling to you, I speak your language. If I am buying, dann müssen Sie Deutsch sprechen.” Assuming audiences speak or want to speak your language is a dangerous assumption to make, and the skilful speaker explained this perfectly in that one sentence alone. Would you buy something from a website that was purely in German? The chances are that your international counterparts would give the same answer about doing business in anything other than their mother tongue. One study has shown that 42% of online shoppers will only ever shop in their native language[2], reiterating the importance of translation in cultivating a customer-focused environment. With the explosion of content that has accompanied globalisation – think websites, social media, video content, and software – the importance of producing material in the language of your current and prospective clients is put sharply into focus as translation goes hand in hand with the fundamental societal norms of courtesy and respect. In today’s world of increased global competition, that can only put you in with a better chance of winning more business.

A willingness to reach out to a customer and do business in their native language is a sign of good manners that will far surpass any gracious gesture of letting them practice their English. For me, as both a linguist and a UK citizen born and bred, the dichotomy of British politeness and a common reluctance to speak anything other than English with international audiences is something I don’t think I’ll ever quite fully understand, especially given the wealth of facts and figures which point towards the competitive advantage that speaking a client’s native language will give businesses. Whether it is an increased client base, cost savings or simply improved communication across borders, there is no shortage of information highlighting the positive impact that using a foreign language can have for English-speaking businesses. What’s more, professional translators and interpreters working into their native language can apply an innate understanding of their country’s cultural sensitivities to their work – a key part of localising any language, as this article[3] points out.

So whilst English-speaking businesses can often operate perfectly well speaking little or none of their client’s local language, the answer to the question “do we really need to translate out of English” should only ever be “yes”. Companies who take the step of getting their material translated out of English show they have respect and customer satisfaction at the heart of what they do, traits that won’t go unnoticed in today’s customer-focused market and that undoubtedly lead to bigger market share.

[1] Market for Outsourced Translation and Interpreting Services and Technology to Surpass US $37 Billion in 2014. (Common Sense Advisory: 30 June, 2014).

[2] Market Overview: Language Service Providers 2013. (Forrester Research: June 20, 2013), p.2.

[3] Doing Business in Other Cultures. (Emma Summers for Mobal: 2009).


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