Posted By P & L Blog

Do you know anyone who has signed a document written in a language she or he couldn't understand?  What were the consequences?


Insist on Translations: Originally published on The Business Ethics Blog.

Continuing my Friday series on keeping your business out of court, let’s discuss a potential pitfall that has emerged relatively recently. Commerce is becoming more international all the time as American businesses try to tap into new markets abroad. It’s all well and good … but it also creates a tremendous opportunity for misunderstanding.

Here’s an example. Several years ago, General Motors tried to market its Chevrolet Nova in Mexico. No one could understand why the car wouldn’t sell - GM’s analysis showed that it was perfect for the Mexican market. Eventually, however, GM discovered that “Nova,” or “no va,” roughly translates in Spanish to “won’t go.” Would you buy a car that “won’t go”? Of course not - and neither would Mexican consumers.

That particular example is pretty entertaining, but it points to a larger problem. If your company is doing business in a foreign country, there’s a good chance that your communications with your customers there are less than perfect. (Incidentally, that’s not just true in countries where languages other than English are spoken. American English bears less resemblance to the English spoken in Canada, Australia, and the U.K. than one might think.) And you can’t just rely on your local contacts to speak for you. I know of one instance where an American business professional signed a regulatory certification in a language he couldn’t read based on his local advisor’s assurance that everything was fine. It wasn’t, and the American got in serious legal trouble.

International markets can offer tremendous opportunities, but the risks associated with doing business in an unfamiliar language are tremendous, too. Before you venture into unknown terrority, make sure you know what the locals are saying to you. It can save your company a world of legal trouble half a world away.

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