KEEPING track of trade means keeping track of the tongues in which it is transacted.
English as a language has ruled the roost for so long that business-people may forget that words can get in the way of, as well as woo, new opportunities.
Translating and interpreting along the way to deal-making are, in fact, in themselves only a start. Spelling, accents and cultural sensitivities have to be just right to translate communication into business success.
How the language barriers are being overcome at one of the most go-ahead City translation agencies provides a fascinating glimpse into the wider world of business.
Jurga Zilinskiene, Lithuanian-born polyglot director of Today Translations, reports that leading requirements are for Chinese: Mandarin, followed by Cantonese. German is very popular and close behind, reflecting intense trading between the UK and Germany.
A year ago, the Chinese languages were still in third place among client requests, but that began to change at the start of 2005. A kind of Chinese fever persists in London and other commercial centres “because everyone is trying to get into the market, notes Ms Zilinskiene, who has a mainly UK-linked client base.
“We are talking mainly about questions of patent or innovation, so most of our translation is for the lawyers who act on behalf of the innovator.
“Meanwhile, contracts between companies, and tendering for certain projects, is expected to be in Chinese. This means Mandarin, but overseas companies that want to be ready for the whole of Southeast Asia will ask for documents to be rendered in Mandarin, Cantonese, Korean and Japanese.
“In Europe, you can register a patent applicable to 25 countries. In Asia it has to be dealt with country by country.”
Demand otherwise is uneven. “In the past months, we have seen an increasing focus on Spanish, French, Scandinavian and Arabic services,” says Ms Zilinskiene. “There has been demand for the “new” European languages those spoken in the latest European Union accession countries but cannot say that it has been as much as I expected”,
Unsurprisingly, Chinese is where the most dramatic action is and, at present, it is the fastest growing. In 2004, it was more a question of gradual growth. Our exposure to companies that deal with Chinese counter-parties grew as well, most probably because of changes in legislation”.
There is increasing call for experts on the Japanese language, although perhaps this is surprisingly from Japan for translation into English. Here again, this mirrors much activity on the western side in promoting the Japanese market.
Established in March 2001, initially exclusively in the legal field, Today Translations has expanded rapidly, although legal work including interpreting for courts and lawyers is still 70% of turnover.
For instance, while many Chinese officials and businesspeople speak good English, expert help is needed in drawing up legal documents and contracts. Ms Zilinskiene says: “All our translators have some legal background; indeed, some are lawyers. Several are graduates, and others junior lawyers.” Lately, her team is increasingly asked to help with websites and marketing materials, mainly in French, German, Dutch, Flemish and Swedish. She is keen on quality control, and her proof readers set tough standards.
Ms Zilinskiene came to the UK in 1995 and studied English. “I was invited by a law firm to do some interpreting into Lithuanian, English and Russian. Working for lawyers, I developed an interest in law. I studied law, politics and economics at City and Islington College, but did not finish my law degree because of my business.
“As I was extremely busy working as an interpreter, I moved as a part-time student to the University of London.”
Her own experience in the world of trading underlined to her the value of language skills. She was importing cloth from the United Arab Emirates to Lithuania. “It showed me how important English is. I really found that to make a good deal, you should converse in the appropriate language, which gives you that competitive edge. Some companies still do not realise how vital it is to have access to other languages.”
Although an accomplished linguist herself, there is one European language that puts her on the spot. “I tried to learn French, but found it challenging because of the pronunciation,” she confesses.
As to the future, Ms Zilinskiene wants to increase her 1,600 linguists on call around the world, to 2,000. She foresees more demand from South America. From 2007, there will be more demand from European Union accession countries as they start to receive funding Today Translations is about to open an office in Vilnius.