Did you know that only 28% of the entire European population can read English? The percentage is even lower in South America and Asia. Even the growing Hispanic community in the US still prefers to read in Spanish.

This means that if you want to sell your products and services to these markets, you will need to be able to communicate effectively in their languages.

Naturally, if you choose to expand into international markets, language will be only one of many challenges. You'll be busy doing market research, finding distribution channels and dealing with legal and banking issues. Despite all these challenges, don't make translation an afterthought—the consequences could be disastrous.

The US State Department says that US companies stand to lose $50 billion in potential sales from poor translations. Companies get themselves into trouble with translations that are inaccurate or culturally inappropriate. Accurate translations, on the other hand, will convey a high-quality image of your products or services, leverage your marketing message and help you keep your company clear of legal difficulties.

How do you secure accurate translations?

First of all, computer-generated translations won't do. Don't take my word for it. Go online, look up a free translation Web site and then have a few sentences translated into a foreign language.

Then, take the translation that was generated, and have it translated back into English with the free service. Read it, and you'll see why it's not a good idea to use computer-generated translations for your marketing messages. Your texts will look unprofessional and less than competent to native speakers.

So if a computer won't do the job, you'll need a person. But whom can you trust? There are literally thousands of translation businesses out there, and they vary greatly in size, price and professionalism. The translation industry is a highly unregulated market, and common quality standards are hard to find.

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Martin Heimann is the project manager for the US Office of OCE Translations Network (www.foreign-language-translation.com).