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Though localization agents are often listed in the Yellow Pages under "Translation Services," the key difference between localizers and translators is the point at which they begin. Typically, traditional translation can take place only after you've developed such materials as product documentation, sales brochures or a Web site. The problem with this approach is that it can only "make over" materials that were designed primarily for U.S. or other English-speaking markets.

What is appropriate for U.S. customers, however, may be ineffective or even offensive in other countries. Many American phrases, concepts and images make no sense at all abroad. For example, Sol Squire, president and CEO of Twin Dragons Software Inc. in Gloucester, Massachusetts, cites KFC's disastrous attempt to translate "finger-lickin' good" into Chinese: "It's good enough that you'll eat your fingers off." At best, a word-for-word translation can sound stiff and unnatural; at worst, it can create costly blunders.

The solution is to address cultural issues before you engineer an international marketing strategy. Cultural awareness, say most localizers, should be addressed early in the planning process. In addition, it should be addressed by someone who understands not only your target market but the product or service you're trying to sell. "We require any translator to have a minimum of 10 years' experience with the subject matter," says Gerry Carson, senior vice president of Pan-American Access Inc., a full-service translation and localization company in Atlanta.

Squire agrees: "You wouldn't hire someone off the street to write marketing materials just because the person spoke English. So why hire someone to develop or translate your technical and sales documents just because of [his or her] language ability?"

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