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Language information & Advice - for those new to trading abroad

Dealing with clients in foreign countries
How to enhance your prospects of getting into the export market and staying there.
Some free information and ideas to help you succeed

If would like to discuss further how to get into trading abroad and are within a reasonable travelling distance, please contact me.

How do you communicate with clients/suppliers abroad?

Let's look at how to and how not to do that.
The following assumes that we are exporting but much applies even if we are dealing with a foreign supplier.

  • Myth; "They all speak English"
  • Let's deal first with the notion that, when dealing with foreign clients, you can get away without any knowledge of anything but English.
    Whilst English is the unofficial international language, which gives Britons the advantage that they can go almost anywhere in the world and be able to communicate with someone, not everyone does speak English, certainly not well enough to do business in it. On the other hand, you may actually get away with it because it is clear that your client has a very good command of English and a desire to practise it further. But is it worth that risk? Moreover you first contact may need to be in his language before that is established. Unfortunately there is still a, perhaps unwitting, arrogance prevalent in that some people think it is up to our foreign contacts to speak English. Failure to make some effort can lead to embarrassing difficulties. If you are interested, there is a little real-life anecdote that I find amusing and which illustrates such a situation HERE

  • Breaking the ice
  • It may well be that your foreign client speaks fluent English. So when you travel to meet him all business matters are dealt with smoothly in English. Nevertheless, it helps if the person representing your company can speak even a few words of the relevant language. Even an effort to say, "Hello", "Please", "Thank you", will usually be appreciated.
    - It shows a willingness to relate to the country in which you are trading.
    - Where you find yourself without an English speaker and you need help, the few words of attempted communication will make an attempt to give you that help more likely. Even in France I have seen people asking for help - maybe only directions - but not having any French, nor apparently even a phrase book, have had their question met with a gallic shrug and the person asked then walking off.
    - Even a smattering of a language can bring with a better understanding of the culture of the country, which can be reflected in the way language is used.

  • Do I need an interpreter?
  • Obviously, if your would-be trading partner is one of those who doesn't speak English, or at least enough to discuss the technical brilliance of your ingenious widget and how it can revolutionise his business, and your knowledge of his language is equally lacking, then an interpreter is a must. You cannot hope to conduct serious business matters with the aid of a phrase book and a dictionary (or any of the well-known online machine translation apps). This is not a service that I provide, so this isn't a sales pitch!

  • Do I need a translator?
  • Assuming that he is writing in his own language, if you wish just to get the gist of what the foreign client is saying in some document he has sent you, then one of the above-mentioned apps may be enough but you must be aware that they cannot cope with context and, where a word has more than one meaning, it is completely random which it will choose. It will be completely stumped many domain specific words and will leave them in the source language!This obviously can lead both to your being unable to understand the so-called English in the translation or, worse could lead to your being misled as to what is actually being said.Such apps ahould be treated with extreme caution.
    Your potential client may be happy for you to write in English. However, if that potential client is a government body/state-owned company, etc. then you will no doubt have to put in a tender to supply your ingenious widget. This will almost certainly have to be in the offical language of the relevant country. So, unless you have on your staff someoen who is comletely fluent in the relevant language, with a knowledge of the relevant technical jargon in both languages, the answer is "Yes". In this case the translator should be a native speaker of, say Dutch, or have lived for a number of years and still live in the Netherlands
    Likewise, all sorts of documents, including that invitation to tender will almost certainly arrive in the language of the country. Again in the absence of your fluent speaker, in order to ensure that every detail of the document is fully understood you would need a translator. This time he/she should be a native English speaker or again a long term resident of the UK or a relevant English speaking country. (Obviously, if you are in Australia, you would want a translator with an Australian background)

  • How I find a translator/interpreter?
  • Well, first of all do you need a translator or an interpreter (or perhaps one of each)?
    An explanation of the different roles they play and how to set about finding a suitable person is explained on this Finding a Linguist page

A further source of information on linguists can be found on the Institute of Linguists "Find-a-Linguist" page where you can also find contact details of individual Linguists.


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