Firm Keeps Global Conversation Clear

May 14, 2004
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GRAND RAPIDS — Beverly Wall has kind of a puzzle. She’s the CEO of a local company that does business all over the world in every language from Tagalog to Bosnian and from Hebrew to Urdu.

But though Languages International Inc. is a 16-year-old Grand Rapids business, she says it is hardly known in town.

Wall, who purchased Languages last July, said she wants to raise the company’s local profile because a fair number of West Michigan firms do a lot of overseas business.

Wall also notes that Grand Rapids has growing populations of immigrants whose presence not only creates a need for the company’s services, but who also can help Languages serve its business clients.

Languages has no difficulty finding linguists. Students from overseas contact the company, looking for work. “We don’t have to advertise for help,” Wall said.

She said that if pressed locally, the company can marshal up to 300 linguists to interpret, translate or conduct language instruction.

Moreover, if a local businessman needs a reliable linguist and guide to deal with overseas officials in looking for a plant site, Languages can find the interpreter with an appropriate background.

Wall said that while the demand for Pacific Rim language services is increasing, most of the company’s work currently is done in European languages, with the heaviest emphasis being on Spanish.

But she stressed that Languages has access to a network of translators around the planet.

“If you need something done in, let’s say, Swahili, not only would I find a Swahili translator, but I would find someone who specializes in the area that the document deals with, whether it’s legal, or medical engineering or advertising.”

The bulk of the firm’s work, she explained, is conducted via the Internet with the bulk of its clientele lying in the nation’s northeast quadrant. An increasing demand for work also stems from Southern Florida, Wall said.

“That’s where the aggressive advertising agencies are appearing on the radar,” she said, “taking some great accounts away from the Manhattan boys.”

Moreover, a former local employee — a Russian linguist — has established a satellite office in South Carolina.

Wall herself speaks no foreign language, but says she’s going to take French. “My daughter is a French student,” she said, “and that way she and I can talk about her father and he won’t know what we’re saying.”

She bought the company because, when working on her MBA through Grand Valley State University, she became intrigued with international business.

“And I thought, ‘Here’s an opportunity for me to play on the planet without having to invest a lot of capital like a manufacturing company would require.’ This is an easy entrée into the international arena.”

Earlier this month, the Michigan Women’s Business Council certified the company as an accredited Women’s Business Enterprise.

WBE certification — which arises from a 60- to 90-day assessment of management, financial control, technology and a commitment to training and excellence — means a firm is accepted by major U.S. corporations and government agencies as a preferred supplier.

The company has a staff of five with two staff linguists who, together, cover French, Dutch, Italian, German and Spanish.

Other contract linguists teach in plants or in classrooms at Language’s office at 2849 Michigan St. NE, just east of East Beltline Avenue.

Wall and her staff say that one of the problems they encounter most often is a common misconception. “People think that because someone else speaks a foreign language that makes them a translator,” Wall said. “Someone will say, ‘Oh, we’ve got somebody that speaks Spanish, so we’ll hand them our legal document and we’ll have them do our Spanish translations.’”

She said it’s an invitation to trouble. “That’s so dangerous because it raises liability issues, communication nuances.” Just because somebody took French in high school, she stressed, doesn’t make them competent to translate complex legalities from English to French.

One story that makes the rounds at the company has to do with a firm that, on its own, translated into French some technical information about a pump that automatically discharged its own internal lubricating grease.

The company had a great deal of expensive printing done and then had to throw it all away when the French affiliate pointed out that the translation indicated the pump discharged bacon.

“If they insist on doing the translation,” Wall said, “then we should at least do the proof reading before they have the material printed.”

Almost everyone in international business knows of Chevrolet’s goof in promoting its Nova model in Mexico. In Spanish, the words “no va” mean “doesn’t go” — something a Spanish linguist would have caught immediately.

A much worse incident occurred decades ago when a manufacturer of powdered infant formula erred badly in translating its instructions for South Americans’ use. The U.S. “two scoops” somehow was rendered as the metric equivalent of six cups. Reportedly, many babies were fortunate to survive the consequent severe intestinal problems.

Not only does Languages look for such errors, it also supports its work with a graphics department that can do projects in Chinese characters, Russia’s Cyrillic alphabet and other, equally exotic-looking languages such as Burmese and Hindi.

Wall points out that the company also does Web site translations. One recent project entailed doing a Japanese version of a Web site for an American importer of German-made, motorized, model Porsche autos.

A Languages staffer pointed out that the man wanted consultation as well as translation. He was concerned about potential cultural conflicts that arise with inappropriate colors or designs. “So we were able to help him with that, translate the Web site, and also pointed out there were three or four links he wouldn’t need in that market.”

Wall said she wants to raise local awareness of Languages because of the international expertise it can give to many local Web designers.

She said Languages also “plans to become well-known in the local market and to become expert in three industries.

“One would be pharmaceutical-medical, one for advertisers and marketers, and one for printers and packagers.

“Locally,” she added, “ we also want to be able to help local companies be able to talk to their non-English-speaking employees and non-English-speaking customers.

“We can take an instructor and put them right on site inside the company,” she added. 

“Currently, we’re teaching German to Behr Industries up on Seven Mile, to help them communicate better with the parent company in Germany. Their accounting folks wanted to speak accounting German and their engineering people want to speak engineering German, and their production people, production German.”    

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