Business Translation Center

Overcoming Language Barriers. The Central Role of Translation and Localization for Global Business

by OFER TIROSH 16/09/2021

Language barriers have a broad and profound impact on international trade, content, media, marketing, management, and business operations.

International trade

English has traditionally been thought of as the language of business. However, the IMF reports that English today accounts for around 30% of global GDP, and that proportion is likely to decline to other business languages in the coming decade.

According to an American Council on Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL) study, English-speaking executives are increasingly turning to their multilingual employees to fill in the gaps. 

The ACTFL study canvassed over 1,200 small and medium business managers. It found that one in four of these businesses confirmed that they lost trade due to foreign language barriers and a lack of translation skills among employees. 

More than 50% of employers questioned in the survey stated that demands for foreign languages will only increase over the next 5 years. 

“We already know that language learning deepens our connections to other cultures, boosts confidence, strengthens decision-making, and contributes greatly to national security,” said ACTFL Executive Director Howie Berman. 

“The reality is we continue to lose hiring opportunities due to language skills barriers, and local cultural misunderstanding. Saying “everyone is different” is really how we operate now,” said Rick, the CEO of a video games company. “Localization of our websites, marketing, recruitment, and apps has been the key to our revenue growth.”

Overseas retail markets are growing rapidly. The majority of consumer sales opportunities are now found located outside of the North American sphere of influence. Many US businesses are understandably eager to expand overseas and operate in these new territories. As they outsource their operations, the most common, and yet often overlooked hurdle to success, are language barriers.

Language barriers can affect global trading hugely. The best strategy for a business is to fully investigate the local language and culture most relevant to the industry and sector, and so learn as much as possible about the market being entered. 

A recent article published on showed that a 10% increase in the Language Barrier Index (LBI) could result in a corresponding 7% to 10% decrease in trade between countries. A lack of these key language skills among businesses cost the UK’s economy almost £50 billion ($63 billion) per year in taxable revenues, or 3.5% of GDP, according to released UK government data.

Overseas Operations and Staff

On a more personal level, language barriers between colleagues can at best, cause confusion, and at worst, cause offense. Now that businesses rely more on working remotely, time differences and expectations that people can speak the employer’s language, can also produce misunderstanding, apprehension, and lost productivity.

Building your brand abroad relies more heavily now on transcreation (creative translation) and localization. By working with an international translation company with expertise in trade, enterprises can more easily do business with clients that speak a different language. A translation and localization company like Tomedes offers services in multiple languages and can help companies compete with greater ease and success in global markets.

Communication strategy is key to a successful overseas operation being compliant with the law and government authorities. As local business requirements can often contain legally binding and regulatory documentation, it is highly advisable to use a professional translation company with experience working with the local culture. Dealing with financial documents in multiple languages may seem a daunting challenge, but armed with the local knowledge, and multilingual partners, any business can be successful operating in other countries.

In this global, always connected, and multicultural business world, expecting all your staff to communicate in a single language, such as English, can reduce the effectiveness of international talent, and leaves foreign workers ill-equipped to compete effectively in a global business environment.

This helps businesses to understand one of the most challenging hurdles to be addressed by international operations in foreign countries. How to constructively communicate information with accuracy and relevance to overseas staff, in their own terms and language. Translation services are important, but it is the deeper ease of understanding and relatability to the local working language, that converts into effective and practical processes and increased productivity.

Businesses that embrace a higher degree of multilingualism—and therefore, a better
understanding of other cultures—make fewer mistakes dealing with local laws, marketing to people, dealing with clients, while also increasing efficiency, productivity, through empowering their workforce.

For organizations that rely more heavily on training staff, clear and effective communication in local languages can make a critical difference. On the one hand, it makes accessibility to sources of information to manage situations more available, and so faster to resolve. On the other, it gives the organization a participatory role as communicating in “their language” helps to avoid all kinds of unintended, but potentially harmful misunderstandings.

As a practical example, a business encumbered by English-only language barriers will have greater difficulty in taking steps to deal with problems, or spotting potential workarounds, in Spanish-only working environments.

“Our English-only speaking boss can be very intimidating for our regular employees who only speak English as a second language. They often feel shy to bring up complaints, and get easily embarrassed about possibly making simple linguistic mistakes,” responded Marimar, a Spanish native, who studied English as a second language. She works as an international marketing consultant for several Spanish banks. “The drawback is this English boss, as a result of this miscommunication, will  try and use Google translate to understand the words, and be misinformed as to the context, often after it is already too late to act.”

Localization of Content and Media

Businesses are creating content and video media at the highest rate in history. The digitization and dissemination of this content globally represent a revolution in the power, ease, and speed to affect vast numbers of people across countries and regions. All that still stands between content and media reaching these multinational audiences on message, as originally intended, are the barriers of the local language and culture. Accordingly, the demands for well-translated and localized content and media have also grown exponentially - a trend that is only set to continue year on year.

Brands and businesses that choose to translate and localize their content and media are more likely to experience sustained growth. As their services diversify and become easier to access in new markets, the brand’s trust and influence grow, adding new revenue streams to their existing business.

Businesses and creators have had to adapt their strategies to the new reality of multilingual and multicultural content and marketing. To engage with a global audience beyond English speakers means translation services have evolved to include subtitling, dubbing, video, audio, and software apps localization.

From retailers to manufacturers, finance to fashion, every business is looking for high-quality and engaging content to increase market share worldwide. As the amount of content available continues to grow, it needs to diversify and reach beyond native-English markets into the Middle East, South America, Asia, and Africa. This can only mean that translation and localization services will need to refine and grow their services to supply the growing demand.

English is certainly a very important—perhaps the most important—language for international exchange and participation in sciences, legal, medical, banking, and other key industries. However, in regions such as Asia, Mandarin is dominant, or in Eastern Europe, Russian is the language of preference. 

These regional ‘lingua francae’ have greater importance outside of the urban centers and financial capitals. It is obvious that the more provincial the business operates, the more entrenched the communication problems become. This is where a localized service with an understanding of the regional and cultural differences adds increasing value to a business, its staff, and customers.

Localization helps a business to adapt its products or content, eg; websites, apps, media, to suit a different market, or country, and adapting the approach to accommodate the linguistic, cultural, political, and legal differences. It helps a business sustain its brand, so what the business is producing and marketing remains virtually the same, regardless of where, or to whom it is being offered.

Communication strategy doesn’t need to be daunting and time-consuming. A good road map for translation already factored into the overseas planning will lead to significant cost-saving and time-saving efficiencies -even on the tightest schedule.

Tomedes is a translation services company that understands and succeeds in overcoming global language barriers through both local expertise and localization. Tomedes provides professional human translation services with a  team of 5,000 professional translators able to overcome even the most challenging global linguistic and cultural obstacles. 

It is great to have the ability to communicate in any language. It is even better to be accurate, impactful, and influential.