From the January 2001 issue of Entrepreneur

Although many say English is the language of business, those saying it loudest are likely those who already speak English fluently. But what about the thousands of potential customers worldwide for whom English is not a first-or even a close second-language?

"Customers who don't speak English still want to be treated the same way you would like to be treated," says Jeff Barger, president of CTS (Corporate Translation Services) Language-Link, a Vancouver, Washington, business that offers interpreting and translation services. "[Getting an interpreter shows] a sense of empathy and courtesy that goes a long way toward building a relationship."

But going that extra step may cost several hundred dollars per hour. Is it worth it? "That depends on how important the longevity of the relationship is," says Barger. "After all, look at the marketing dollars you spent to win that customer-are you going to skimp when you finally sit down with him?" In the global marketplace, interpreters can be used in a wide range of settings, from conferences to trade shows. Barger expects interpreting to become increasingly valuable both in videoconferencing and in the development of international audio-visual materials, such as marketing and training videos. He also expects to see more voice-overs and subtitles on DVDs, in Web-delivered infomercials and in multilingual Web site animation.

Interpretation comes in two forms: simultaneous and consecutive. A simultaneous interpreter translates your words as you speak, delivering your message just a few seconds behind you. A consecutive interpreter waits for you to complete a paragraph or thought (anywhere from one to five minutes) and then relays the complete paragraph while you pause.

Barger offers these tips to help your interpretations run smoothly:

Find a native speaker. Look for an interpreter fluent in the idioms of your target language as well as idiomatic English.

Get an interpreter with experience in the area of your business. If you're discussing specific business or technical terms, you'll want someone who understands and knows how to translate them into equivalent terms in the target language. Barger says the interpreter doesn't have to be an expert in your field, "but you do want someone who can translate basic concepts."

Explain in advance what will be covered. Barger recommends you provide the interpreter with a list of technical terms. If you're giving a speech, most interpreting firms require you to provide them with a copy (or at least your notes) beforehand.

Prepare a script. Know what you're going to say before you go into the meeting. Stick to the script.

Don't ramble; stay focused. Avoid wandering off on unrelated tangents. Talk about exactly what you told the interpreter you'd talk about-don't change your mind at the last minute and talk about something else.

Pace your delivery. People often talk more quickly when reading a speech or script. When your speech is being interpreted, however, you need to slow down to give the interpreter a chance to keep up (and the audience a chance to keep up with the interpretation).

Use humor cautiously. Remember that humor often doesn't translate across cultures. Avoid jokes that rely on English language wordplay and puns, or on an understanding of current U.S. culture or events.

Provide written materials. Support your multilingual efforts with effectively translated brochures, package instructions and other materials.

Finally, says Barger, "Don't make assumptions about whether a contact will or won't want an interpreter." Make sure your offer of interpreting is presented as a gesture of courtesy and respect for your contact's language and culture-not as an assumption that he or she can't handle yours.


Moira Allen is a freelance writer in Chesapeake, Virginia, and editor of Global Writers' Ink, an electronic newsletter for international writers.


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