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Don't rely on Google – invest in languages to grow your business

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It’s easy to feel intimidated by the prospect of selling in another language. According to research from the British Council, around three-quarters of British people don’t speak another language well enough to have a basic conversation, let alone sell a product or negotiate a deal. But it’s well worth getting over that language barrier. A recent report from the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) found that the UK is losing out on an incredible £48bn a year in lost exports as a direct result of its lack of language skills.

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“A lot of SMEs see languages as a cost and it’s absolutely not a cost, it’s an investment,” says Roy Allkin, co-founder of translation company Wolfestone. “We need to change the perceptions that the language barrier is too big to get over, that it’s too difficult to compete with native speakers and that ultimately, everyone out there speaks English – which is absolutely untrue.”

A problem you’re likely to encounter when exporting is getting documents translated – everything from customs forms to your website content. But there are plenty of options. If you don’t want to spend a lot of money initially, or you’re just testing the water in a new country, you could try using students and people on work experience to translate simple texts, as Neil Westwood, co-founder of Magic Whiteboard, has done. Exports currently make up around 20% of their sales, to countries as diverse as Japan, Romania and Mexico.

Google Translate is free, of course, but it doesn’t always have the nuances necessary for correct translation, says Richard Brooks, founder of translation company K International. “It’s hard enough to find the right words in English if you’re not a communications expert – and expecting a computer to do it might be an expectation too far.”

Westwood found this out when he translated his business cards into Japanese using Google Translate and presented them at a trade show in Tokyo. “I translated ‘clings using static’ as that’s what our products do, and that didn’t translate very well, apparently. They looked puzzled and said ‘who have you got to do this?’ Luckily, we turned it into a laugh, saying we were crazy English people.” 

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