Lost in Translation, Doing business abroad? Here’s how to get around language barriers

March 31, 2014

When Richard Slingerland explores new business opportunities abroad, he often needs to let his products speak for themselves.

That’s because the business development manager of Niagara-based Pillitteri Estates Winery only speaks English and a little bit of Italian, even though he sells his products to 31 countries around the world.

“The way we try to get around the language barriers is with a lot of visuals,” he said, adding that he travels to trade shows and exhibitions abroad with price sheets, business cards, and other materials already translated to the local language, as well as a video display showcasing the ice wine harvesting process. “They see the price and taste the quality and from there the business can begin.”

Mr. Slingerland predicts that language barriers add an extra 5 to 10 per cent to the total cost of his goods — much of which is spent on legal translators and meeting foreign labelling requirements — but the real sacrifice is time.

“Sometimes we’ll be in a meeting and it will be 45 minutes of pure Japanese or Mandarin and there’s nothing coming back (in English),” he said. “So you need to take your time and be patient.”

Language barriers can be one of the biggest hurdles for Canadian small businesses expanding into foreign markets, but it’s one they’ll need to overcome on the way to new business opportunities.

Though dealing with different dialects can be exhausting, Pillitteri Estates depends on its ability to communicate with other cultures, as export sales comprise nearly 40 per cent of their business, with nearly 70 per cent of those sales taking place in Asia.

“There’s a lot of times where you bump into someone who’s interested in your product and a language barrier stops things from getting done,” said Mr. Slingerland, who consciously tries to learn small phrases during his frequent trips abroad, but has never taken a formal language class.

For some small business owners, however, having their staff take a language class is critically important. Mario Zelaya calls his digital marketing company,Majestic Media, ‘a global small business.’ Though his clients are largely based in North America, much of his staff is located in places like Argentina, Costa Rica, Venezuela, Poland, Bulgaria, Spain, and Cuba.

To cope with the language barrier, Mr. Zelaya is paying for three of his staff members to take a one-hour English class each morning. “We want their career path to evolve within Majestic Media so they can work directly with the account directors and other folks across the globe,” he said. “When we get the results from that investment we see a great ROI.”

Mr. Zelaya explains that when the company began to expand, he ensured that each office had at least one person that spoke both English and the local language. “Once we had those core people on staff that were bilingual, being fluent in English was no longer a requirement,” he said. “If the right candidate comes to the table and they are a perfect fit we’re not going to limit ourselves because of language.”

Though Mr. Zelaya was surprised by how easy it was to find talented, bilingual staff abroad, many Canadian entrepreneurs first look to their own multicultural society to build connections in foreign countries.

“You can finds lots of multilingual skills in Canada without depleting your quality of staff,” said Vince Mifsud, CEO of Scribble Technologies Inc., a Toronto-based enterprise software company with offices in New York and London. “Even in the U.K., our top sales guy is German, speaks perfect English, Spanish, and French.”

Originally published March 31, 2014, by Jared Lindzon