Missouri businesses investing in world domination must grapple with the age-old Tower of Babel problem in a fast-paced digital age where expectations are high and mistakes in nuance can be disastrous.
Susanne Evens’ Chesterfield-based AAA Translation service handles work in 150 languages with more than 500 native-speaking translators and interpreters around the world. Interpreters work in spoken or sign language; translators work in written language.
A native of Germany who moved to St. Louis in 1992 with her then-husband, Evens started the company in 1994 as German Language Communication.
By 2000, the demand for local companies in need of services in other languages had jumped to a level that inspires any capitalist to step outside his or her comfort zone to expand.
There weren’t many people doing foreign translation, and few did multiple languages or highly prized cultural translations — “You can’t just interpret the words. You have to convey the meaning,” she said — under one roof.
“I decided then and there that I wouldn’t just add one or two languages, I immediately knew I had to figure out how to do up to 150 languages,” Evens said. And that meant setting up protocols for double checks, triple checks, confidentiality agreements and getting up to speed quickly.
She’s fluent in her native German and English, but she says she speaks only passable Spanish, Italian, French and Russian. So her operation includes a system to verify that any discrepancies identified amongst translations are sent to another translator in languages that she herself couldn’t even begin to copy edit.
She navigates the Tower of Babel with great care.
Evens said that requests for her service include translating detailed product manuals, and verifying that a product name won’t be offensive in the countries where it is sold.
“A name that works in one country doesn’t necessarily translate to something that works in another country, that’s a big problem,” Evens said, and it’s one companies need to consider early and long before packaging is requested and advertising begins.
There are websites devoted to epic translation failures, and it’s not notoriety that any company craves. Clairol introduced a hair curling device in 2006 that translated politely to “manure stick” in Germany. Braniff Airlines, promoting leather seats in 1987, translated its “fly in leather” slogan into a Spanish phrase that sounded like “fly naked.” Kentucky Fried Chicken stumbled in China in the late 1980s when its slogan “finger lickin’ good” was translated to “eat your fingers off.”
Larry Dill, director of the University of Missouri International Trade Center, says there are hundreds of ways for international business relations to go awry.
The process starts with researching the region, looking at the political and cultural considerations, assessing the supply chain and financing needs and coming up with an entry strategy. It’s a lot of work to do when everything can be tripped up by a few misplaced consonants and vowels.
As you can imagine, the “manure stick” was a bust in Germany.
Dill and his students offer global strategy advice to companies that already have a strong international presence as well as companies that have never even operated outside the state of Missouri before.
“No one balks at the cost of the translation services,” he said. “There are too many textbook examples of how it can go wrong.”
Connected to the world
In Missouri, Dill said, many small to mid-size companies also have the opportunity to request state funding for translation services through the Missouri Department of Economic Development’s International Trade and Investment Office.
In July (the latest figures available), the United States exported $194.4 billion and imported $238.1 billion in goods and services. Missouri accounts for only about 1 percent of those totals, but the state sees the potential to enhance its global exports.
According to the state’s Strategic Initiative for Economic Growth, Kansas City-area companies account for more than half of total worldwide animal health, diagnostics and pet food sales, and St. Louis has the world’s largest concentration of plant scientists.
The state is within a two-day drive of 48 states and borders eight states, tied with Tennessee for the most of any state. Missouri is also home to two major waterways, the Missouri and Mississippi rivers, and 14 public ports, along with three Foreign Trade Zones, situated in Kansas City, St. Louis and Springfield.
“I do think most people who aren’t in international trade would be surprised at how viable global trade or business is for Missouri companies,” Dill said.
He said that because of the specialized industries in the state from agriculture to aerospace technology, there are small niche companies that manufacture components for local giants such as Boeing or Monsanto but also want to diversity by generating ties with associated industries overseas.
“It goes beyond ‘How do I get my product there and how do I get paid,’ ” Dill said. If a company is manufacturing complex machinery, they need services that will accurately translate manuals much more complex than Ikea furniture.
He said the small St. Charles company Masterclock Inc. crafts made-in-America precision timing equipment so reliable that it’s used by NASA’s Kennedy Space Center to time rocket launchings. The product is in markets all over the world from the recent FIFA World Cup in Brazil to the Yangon International Airport, the busiest airport in Myanmar, where it is used to manage air traffic, security systems and passenger alerts. Yet the company has fewer than 50 employees.
“Good economic sense demands good translation,” said Steve Belko, executive director of the Missouri Humanities Council. Online translation tools can’t compete with knowledgeable humans with cultural competence.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics projects a 29 percent increase, “much faster than average,” in translation and interpreting jobs between 2014 and 2024.
AAA Translation is one of a few project management translation and interpreting services. The other is also woman-owned and operated by Melissa Wurst, the owner and founder of Language Solutions Inc. She’s a native of St. Louis who started the company in 1998 after working overseas.
“You’d be surprised by how many companies need services and what they request,” Evens said, noting that they’ll set up mini United Nations style communication suites for conferences or help translate food labels for marketing.
She estimates that they handle 800 projects a year and noted that current project include translations into Spanish, French, Chinese, Italian, German and Arabic.
“It changes by the day,” Evens said. “It’s a small world.”
Debra D. Bass • 314-340-8236
@debrabass on Twitter
Daily updates on the latest news in the St. Louis business community.