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.

What makes the problem worse is that even after you receive a translation you will probably not be able to judge its quality, unless of course you speak the language yourself.

So how can you find a trustworthy and reliable translation service? In the age of electronic communications, you need not limit yourself to a local search. Translations can be easily delivered by email, and under most circumstances you can discuss all project details over the phone.

For legal reasons, and also for ease of payment processing, you might find it more convenient to work with a provider in your country. Most translation companies will provide a free consultation and a free price proposal for your project.

Besides the cost, here's a checklist of things to inquire about:

  1. Native speakers: Does the provider work with translators who are native speakers of the languages? There are plenty of fluent, non-native speakers of second languages, but only native speakers have a perfect feel for their language. Working with native speakers will ensure that your translations sound natural to your audiences, and not like a translation from a foreigner.

  2. Specialist knowledge: It's not enough to speak the language. The people who translate your material must know your industry. Translating for a technology firm requires different expertise than translating for a pharmaceutical company.

  3. Location: The best translators are those who work from their native countries. They are up to date with current developments and changes in the languages. If you choose a translation firm that has translators in exactly the countries you are targeting, you can be sure that your translations will more likely be linguistically and culturally appropriate.

  4. File formats: To avoid extra work and costs, make sure you choose a translation firm that can work with exactly the same file formats you use and require.

  5. Technology: Find out what kind of technology the translation firm uses. For example, state-of-the-art translation memory tools allow the re-use of previously translated material. For example, if you make changes or update your material over time, you'll want only those changes translated, not the complete documents.

  6. Quality assurance: Ask the company for its quality assurance procedures. Find out whether all translated material gets reviewed before it is sent to you.

  7. Reference checks: Find out which clients the translation company has worked for in the past. Call those references and find out how satisfied they are with customer service and translation quality.

Once you have selected a translation provider, make sure you work together with the provider closely in order to maximize the quality of your translations. One rule is to allow sufficient time. Rushing a job always risks compromising its quality.

Also, make sure that the source material is well written. You can never generate a great translation from a mediocre source text. Provide as much background material as possible to help the translators understand your product-specific context and learn your organization's jargon.

Finally, it's a good idea to remain available for questions and feedback during the translation project. Good translators are like good students—they will always ask you questions.

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