Don't Let Your Global Business Efforts Get Lost in the Translation!

Yes, even this saavy global traveller had an embarrassing experience once when presenting a gift to a Japanese businessman. I had picked up a snack gift pack on the way to our meeting. The precise number of snacks in the sleeve was four. I thought this was an appropriate quantity to enjoy and share with his colleagues. I didn't realize until later that anything boxed or presented in the quantity of four means death to the Japanese. Needless to say, I conveyed to him the "kiss of death" at the very beginning of our business relationship. I never heard from him again. Live and learn.

I know you are chuckling but don't miss my point: mistranslation (words, gesture in my case, small nuances) can sabotage your best global marketing efforts!

Business travelers often are advised to beef up their foreign language skills before venturing overseas. Even if not fluent in the local language, the executive who can throw around a greeting or conversational phrase here and there may score enough points to clinch a deal over a competitor.

The trouble begins, however, when those with limited knowledge of a foreign language, or even those professing more than a passing knowledge, proceed to conduct business in that language. The situation gets rougher still when companies use poorly qualified translators for their promotions, either to save money or simply because of sloppy screening of the person or firm chosen to translate.

Consider the following experiences:

1. A Canadian importer of Turkish shirts destined for Quebec used a dictionary to help him translate into French the label "Made in Turkey." His final translation: "Fabrique en Dinde." True, "dinde" means "turkey." But it refers to the bird, not to the country, which in French is Turquie.

2. An Otis Engineering Corp. display at a Moscow exhibition produced as many snickers among the Russians as it did praise. Company executives were not happy to learn that a translator had rendered in Russian a sign identifying "completion equipment" as "equipment for orgasms."

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Laurel Delaney ( is the founder of and the creator of "Borderbuster," an e-newsletter, and The Global Small Business Blog. She can be reached at