Going International: Breaking the Language Barrier

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Wendy Pease is President of Rapport International, an agency that specializes in multilingual marketing, translating messages and meanings in over 200 languages – in any format, including blog posts, audio content, video, print, and multilingual chat. Wendy bought Rapport in 2004, because the fit seemed right with her interests. Over 15 years, it has maintained the same depth of languages and increased staff, revenue, and its focus on marketing. Rapport International is a Hubspot Partner

In this interview, Wendy explains that interpretation is for the spoken word what translation is for the written word. Translation, especially in marketing, is not done “word for word.” It needs to be culturally adapted and capture the meaning of the message. To ensure quality and to address this broad range of languages, Rapport International contracts with independent bilingual translators who specialize in writing for different markets and purposes.

Fifteen years ago, companies in English-speaking countries expanded internationally by exporting to companies in other English-speaking countries. Company websites opened markets across language, cultural, and geographical boundaries. Companies became “accidental exporters” when orders started coming in from other countries.

A reactive response to interest from other countries? Start marketing in any country that “self identified” as being a potential market. 

A better way? Wendy believes it is important to ask, “What is the corporate strategy?” “What is the marketing strategy?” And “How is multilingual communication going to support that strategy?” If a company only wants to sell certain products in a certain country, they don’t need to translate everything about all the rest of their products. A landing page can be used to test new market.

Wendy identified quite a few multilingual challenges: Keyword selection. Effective communication when a language does not have an equivalent word for critical product descriptor. Dealing with the approximately 3,000 new words added to a language each year. Marketing and inbound’s increasing complication and specialization, content management issues, and providing it all in the needed languages.

Wendy can be reached on her company’s website at www.rapporttranslations.com or on LinkedIn: Wendy Pease at Rapport International.

ROB: Welcome to the Marketing Agency Leadership Podcast. I am your host, Rob Kischuk, and I am joined today by Wendy Pease. She is the President of Rapport International, based in Metrowest Boston, Masachusetts. Welcome to the podcast, Wendy.

WENDY: Thank you. It is great to be here.

ROB: It’s very good to have you here. Glad we could meet in person, in your home region, hometown.

WENDY: Yes. [In Boston accent] I pahked my cahr next door. [laughs]

ROB: Oh yeah, that’s right. We were just talking about accents. You’re not really carrying the Boston accent very strongly here.

WENDY: No, I’m not.

ROB: That’s fine. That can be polarizing. Why don’t you start off by telling us a little bit about Rapport International and what Rapport focuses on?

WENDY: Sure. Rapport International specializes in multilingual marketing. We do a lot of translation, and translation is not word for word, particularly when you’re doing it in the marketing area, because you really need to capture the message. And if you’re a marketing person, you know how much research and strategy has to go into creating the message and trying to get that across to the audience that you’re speaking to.

So, we’ve really specialized in on finding people that know how to do that, so it’s not just the message, but it’s also culturally adapted.

ROB: I have to ask: how many languages do you know?

WENDY: Me personally, I know some Spanish, French, and Italian, but my language skills have actually gotten worse because the people who do the linguistic work are fully bilingual, so I’m speaking to them usually in English to do fast business.

ROB: For sure. What formats of content are you looking at? Are you looking at blog posts in different languages, are you looking at audio content, video, print? What’s the range of where language takes you?

WENDY: It’s all of those. We take anything from one language to another in over 200 languages, in any format. The only thing we do not do is get into the teaching area. For example, we’re here at the Inbound Conference, and we’re HubSpot partners, so we have a way to hook up a connector and actually facilitate the process to make the translation done easier.

ROB: Is part of the problem there that you’re focusing on a very large piece of content? Like when you’re teaching, you’re trying to translate several perhaps episodes of content to communicate a bigger picture. Why would teaching be a different thing?

WENDY: Teaching is a different skillset. This is something that’s little-known outside the industry, but translation is written; interpretation is spoken. Anything written, you want to think of the type of person that would be fully bilingual, but they like to read, they like to write, they like to be behind the computer. An interpreter is more typically somebody who likes to be running around, meeting with people, helping out. They’re very socially oriented.

When you get into teaching, it’s not only the skillset of going from one language to another, but it’s also having the education background of how to present that. We just haven’t gotten into the area.

But here’s an interesting thing: when you start getting into chat and chatbots, is that a translator, or is that an interpreter? Because it’s written, and it’s kind of live.

ROB: Yeah. What do you think it is right now?

WENDY: I don’t know. We call it multilingual chat. [laughs]

ROB: Is that something that you touch on right now?

WENDY: Yes, that is something that we offer.

ROB: We’re here at Inbound, HubSpot’s conference, and HubSpot does chat, so it’s probably something relevant that people you’re talking to here are thinking about how to handle.

WENDY: Yes.

ROB: What is the decision point in a company that you work with that typically makes them get into multiple languages? Are these huge companies? Is it a company picking their second, third, fifth, tenth, hundredth language? When do they start having to think about language?

WENDY: That has changed just in the 15 years since I’ve been in the business. It used to be companies had to go out and pick a strategy about how they were going to go global. So, they’d say, “Okay, we’re going to pick a country,” and typically in the United States, they’d pick the UK or Australia, Canada, someplace that spoke English because they didn’t have to deal with the language.

Now that’s changing, because companies of all sizes are putting up a website, and if they’re a manufacturer, they’re a consumer product, or they’re something that is demanded internationally, they might start getting requests in from other countries. This is called the accidental exporter, because that company then says, “We can ship this to Germany,” and then they start getting a few requests from there, and they go, “Let’s put a landing page up in German.”

So, there’s two ways to come at it. One is, do we be responsive? The other is, do we think this through as to what markets might want our products?

ROB: That’s interesting to think about also. It’s not all-or-nothing. It’s this robust, gigantic website in every possible language and experience. You can serve a lot of people lightly and dip your toe in the water.

WENDY: That’s actually what makes us a little bit different; we’re really good about going in and saying, okay, what is the corporate strategy? Then, when you bring that down to the marketing strategy, how is your multilingual communication going to support that strategy? Then once you’ve picked out the strategy – like say a company wants to sell certain products in certain countries – they don’t need to translate all of that. Maybe they want to test something, so they do a landing page.

So you can actually build out a strategy, and then you have to figure out what’s the process we’re going to do? Are we going to have internal folks? Are we going to hire an agency (like us)? So we can help them with that.

Then you have to figure out the technology, because, if you take the time to research your keywords, you want to make sure that you’re using the keywords that you’ve picked in that language over and over again to get the benefit from the market. And then, of course, you have to look at quality.

ROB: Right. That’s interesting to think about the keywords and the tooling around keywords in different languages. Are there many tools that help you with that? Do your normal SEO vendors help with this, or do they not even think about it? Do they have some problems that would prevent them – whether it’s geography or whether it’s language coverage?

WENDY: Working with keywords, when an agency comes to us and they say, “These are the keywords that we have for our client,” or if a client gives them to us, we’ll take them off to a translator that specializes in the language and in marketing. If there’s only one word that the keyword would be applicable, we’ll give them that. But if there’s a few words that could work in there, we’ll provide the multiple words in the translated language, so then the marketing expert can figure out which ones they want to target, or if there’s other ones that they also want to build a strategy around.

ROB: That’s unexpected. I think most of us don’t think about multi-language SEO. What are some of the other offshoots that people might not have thought of that end up crossing your plate when you’re working with clients?

WENDY: Another one is if there’s not a word in the other language. For example, I was just talking to a partner from Germany, and in their name, they have “inbound.” They’re “Be Inbound.” “Inbound” is not translated in Germany because it’s a very American thing, a very marketing thing. So “inbound” is the word. When we’re working with companies that might have a product or a service or something that’s branded that doesn’t have a translation, we can then advise them on the best way to handle that.

ROB: Got it. Over time, when something becomes more popular, does Google usually eventually handle that for you a little bit? Or not so much?

WENDY: No, we don’t use Google Translate at all because you can’t depend on it.

ROB: I mean, do they start solving some of the language barrier? Like, will they show you something in a different language if your answer is best served in English?

WENDY: Run that by me again?

ROB: Let’s say the absolute best result, even if I’m searching for a different language, the best results that will help me learn what I want to learn crosses a language boundary. Let’s say someone was searching for Inbound, but the Inbound English site – let’s say there’s a different word for inbound. What’s “inbound” in Spanish? Or is there…? [laughs]

WENDY: I don’t know if there’s another one. In German, there’s not. So it might keep it in that, or it might define it as something else and give you another word for it.

ROB: Yeah, “did you mean…”

WENDY: Yeah, “did you mean this?” Of course, you’d have no idea if you were looking on it. And Google’s really good for some things. You get some random email in, you can pull that in, pop it into Google, and see if it has anything to do with your business, or if it’s something else.

But the danger is, there’s about 3,000 new words that are added to a language each year. If you think about – “selfie” is a good example. That used to not be a word, but Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary now adds that in. Google doesn’t keep up with the new words that are being added in, or the differences. Here in New England, we might say “it’s wicked hot out.” Down in Atlanta, you don’t say it’s “wicked” hot. That’s just a weird thing.

ROB: Yeah, the charts you see where there’s reasons with three different words for “firefly.” Have you seen those linguistic charts?

WENDY: Oh, right.

ROB: It’s like “lightning bug” versus “firefly,” and then there’s some obscure Jamaican term that some small chunk of Americans use to refer to fireflies. That’s weird.

WENDY: I have a whole book on that, and it’s fascinating. Like pajamas, nightie, PJs, or whether you call something soda, pop, or coke. Down in Atlanta everything’s a coke, even though you might be asking for Sprite.

ROB: Yeah, I disagree with that, even though I’m in Atlanta.

WENDY: Oh really?

ROB: Yeah. What’s the name of that book?

WENDY: Oh, I can’t remember. It’s at my house.

ROB: That’s a good coffee table book.

WENDY: Yeah, I’ll have to get it to you. You can post it onto the podcast.

ROB: Very cool. If we rewind a little bit, what led you to start Rapport International in the first place? What’s the origin story here?

WENDY: I actually bought the company; I didn’t start it. I had owned my own business before going to Tuck for business school. I went off to work for two different companies and was laid off on both maternity leaves. One was a venture fund and it sold out. So, I was like, I really want to get back to owning my own business, because that’s what I’m passionate about. But I didn’t have an idea to start one.

I played around online and found this small company for sale. I majored in foreign services. I love languages and culture, I love to travel. I lived internationally when I was a kid. So, I thought, well, let me look into this. I met with the owner, and lo and behold, two months later I was the owner of Rapport International.

ROB: Wow. I think what’s neat there is this aligns with a passion of yours. But a lot of people who might’ve wanted to start this sort of business might not have because they’re not fluent natively in four languages. The default for some people would be to work so hard as one person until they can grow it to hire another person and hire another person. You were able to jump into a business that had overcome even a scale point that would’ve been a problem for one translator who just knew a few languages.

WENDY: Right.

ROB: Where was the business when you acquired it? And what led you to see it as an opportunity? Why were they selling, too?

WENDY: The owner, Lisa Gavigan – who I love, and we thought we could’ve been partners if she wasn’t ready to get out – but she was ready to go on and find a job and do something different. She had been doing it for 17 years, so the company’s actually over 30 years old. I found her online and met her. It was based in Massachusetts, and it was virtual at that point, so it wasn’t like I had to drive an hour from my home to go there. We could keep it virtual. She did training, and I took over from there.

And then 4 years ago, we made another acquisition in Lincoln, Nebraska. So we’ve added on capabilities and services out there too.

ROB: I was going to ask, what is the value in the merger? Did they have a particular capability? Did they have local clients or regional advantage, client-wise? What was the synergy there?

WENDY: The company Rapport International in Massachusetts, the history had always been translation, so we were doing a lot more written work. I had been looking for another acquisition to make, and I found this company that focused more on interpretation, which is spoken. My vision, which we’ve been implementing, is that we take translation out to Nebraska and then bring the interpreting skills back into Massachusetts.

We do have customers all over the world, but ironically, people sometimes want to work with a company – and I think this is more historically true; I don’t know if this is changing – they want to work with a company that’s close by. They like a local company.

ROB: I think from where we sit on this podcast, at least, in the agency side of the world – and I think lots of services firms – people like to work with local. You work typically with a local accountant, a local agency, a local attorney, local doctors. Unless you have something really bad and you’re trying to get the best person in the world solving some problem, there’s an affinity for local. Which I think does drive reasons, and for some people it’s going to be easier to get out West from Nebraska, too.

WENDY: Yes. In Lincoln, we see that. We do keep an office out there, because people are even more geared to face-to-face interactions than what we see a request for in Boston.

ROB: Right. Here, they’ll do a meaningful deal with you even though you’re like “let’s come to your office or WeWork or something,” but in Nebraska, probably having an office is part of “I trust you.”

WENDY: People will drop by, yeah.

ROB: Some people would worry about a lawyer without an office, so we have these weird things in our head where we expect things of some professions, I think.

WENDY: Yes.

ROB: So, it’s a little lumpy. What have been some of the inflection points since you acquired the business? Would we measure it in languages, in media, clients, team size? How’s the business been growing? What are the measurables? You could say, “We went from two languages to 3,000,” but did you have 200 languages when you acquired it?

WENDY: Yes. We’ve always had the depth of languages, and that’s what I bought when I bought the company. Who’s good, who do you use, who can you depend on to be timely? So, we’ve always had the breadth of languages.

We’ve added staff and we’ve added revenue each year, so that’s where we’ve grown. And then we’ve come down into more of – we were broad across the board on whatever we did, but now we’re really focusing in on marketing. We’re the preferred provider for the Boston Bar Association, and then we do a lot in the life sciences/healthcare arena.

ROB: That’s interesting, too, coming in on that focus. I’m sure you have some people who can help you with a few languages, but how do you think about managing this capability? It sounds like you must have a lot of people to have translators who are ready, they’re going to deliver on time, they’re going to deliver well. But it would be hard to have somebody on full-time salary for every single need.

WENDY: No, we don’t. I have a staff that is onboard and employees, but all of our linguists are independent contractors, because if we have somebody that’s doing highly technical marketing, that’s going to be very different than somebody that might be doing a life science patent application.

So we match not only the language with the subject matter expertise, and not only that, we match them down to the client. We think a lot about who we’re going to put on the client work, and then keep that person working with the client. It’s just like a content writer; once they start gaining the knowledge, it’s easier for them to actually do the work.

ROB: Right. Someone who’s done a bunch of legal work is going to do much better the next time you give them legal work in a particular language. There’s a tone, there’s an expected – but it’s interesting, because they would also understand the culture expected from a lawyer or a barrister or whatever else we may call them.

What are the harder languages that you need to keep a heavier rotation for the business, the harder ones to replace if someone has a reason that they’re not available anymore?

WENDY: That’s a good question. We always have backup. We have capacity there, so we’ll have our trusted translators and editors, and then before we bring somebody else on, we’ll have them reviewed by those people to know that they’re the quality. We’ve gotten requests for like Mandingo, we do Bahasa. Some languages you might not have even heard of.

ROB: Sure. Any particular languages that are rising in demand for you, you’re seeing more people ask for a particular language? Spanish, Chinese, Russian? I don’t know. [laughs]

WENDY: No, those are all very common. Spanish, Chinese, Russian. Here’s something interesting about Chinese. People say, “I’ll need this translated into Mandarin.” Well, Mandarin is a spoken dialect, and there’s many spoken dialects of Chinese, but there’s only two written forms of Chinese. One is simplified and one is traditional.

The differences between them is in China, when Mao Zedong came in and sealed off the borders, he wanted to simplify the language so the masses and the Communist Party could learn to read and write. So, anybody from mainland China would know simplified Chinese, where in other Chinese-speaking countries, like Taiwan and Singapore, even Hong Kong traditionally, they would’ve known traditional Chinese.

ROB: Wow. Hong Kong and their native language, probably a very relevant topic right now. The people in Hong Kong are trying to hang on to some independence, as they hope.

WENDY: Yeah.

ROB: Interesting things there. So what are you seeing – whether it’s in your business, whether it’s in the realm of digital and marketing, what’s coming up that you’re excited about? Industry or for Rapport particularly.

WENDY: I love the HubSpot and the WordCamp, working with WordPress. We’ve got real specialties in that area. I can see how marketing and inbound is all getting so much more specialized, and having to understand that, and how you manage the content, how you make sure it’s getting out there and it’s in the languages that they need to access. And then technology enabling the simplification of the process, so you still have the quality from a human, making sure the message is there. That coming all together has been fascinating for me.

ROB: Are there some platforms – the HubSpot and the WordPress platforms, are they showing better support to let you do this than maybe some other content platforms you might try and use?

WENDY: They’re the two that are so frequently used and requested. I know Dribbble could also hook in with the API that we have and the connector, but we don’t see as many requests for that.

ROB: Right. Does WordPress do that natively, or is it just some plugins that make it work pretty well?

WENDY: It’s a plugin that then comes into our memory. We don’t use technology to translate material, but once it’s been translated, we’ll put it into a memory so you can keep that consistent voice and the keywords are accurate. So we’ll use a plugin to put that in to make sure that the translation is done accurately.

ROB: Oh, that’s really interesting. These are all things I hadn’t even thought about – drafts of different languages and publishing when they’re ready. My goodness, that sounds like a lot of things going on there.

Now, this is your second year at Inbound, you said?

WENDY: My third year at Inbound, my second one as a partner.

ROB: I see. Did you come to Inbound first because you’re near Boston and it’s local? Or did you already have some work that first year, working on top of HubSpot, when you decided to come to the conference?

WENDY: We became a user of HubSpot. Fell in love with it, because we used to use multiple platforms and struggle with keeping all our contacts current and getting them across the way. So when somebody introduced me to HubSpot, I fell in love with it, and then I thought “well, it’s local; I might as well go to the conference.”

Then when I came to the conference, I’m like, we do marketing translation really well. These are my peeps. [laughs] So that’s why I kept coming.

ROB: That’s interesting, and it’s one of those things that probably snuck up on all of this – just the rise in marketing copy and marketing content. When you acquired the firm, people were still trying to do English SEO, kind of badly. I don’t know if there was tools or content, or if Google even was doing a good job of it.

So that in and of itself, and then all the digital marketing channels, has really blown up right in front of you. In a good way.

WENDY: Yes. Oh yeah. It’s been fascinating.

ROB: What else? Obviously there are great people here at this conference. What else are you looking forward to for the rest of the week that you think we’d miss if we weren’t here?

WENDY: Oh, I think you’ve got to stop by and see Dan Tyre and David Weinstein at the Lion booth. I mean, I’ve had a career in sales. I started out and knew how to meet people and do that, but with all the ABM, account-based management, and sales and marketing working together, and sales automation, I just like to stay current on all that, because that’s adding such opportunity.

ROB: Awesome. Very cool. When people want to get in touch with you, Wendy, and with Rapport International, where should they find you?

WENDY: You can go to our website, which is www.rapporttranslations.com. (Rapport is the French word of getting along with people.) Or you can reach out to me on LinkedIn, Wendy Pease at Rapport International. I’d love to connect with you, and if you ever want a free multilingual marketing assessment, I’m happy to do that.

ROB: And you’ll teach us 1,000 things that we had no idea about, but we need to know.

WENDY: Well, I’ll teach the few key things that are important for your specifics, and then we’ll keep the 1,000 things in our head to not overwhelm you. [laughs]

ROB: That’s much more strategic. That’s fantastic. I think if people are getting into the waters that you are already in and wise in – they probably already know it, but they don’t know what to do. So it’s good to know there’s folks like you out there, and it’s good to know that robots and computers and AI can’t do all the jobs yet.

Thank you so much, Wendy.

WENDY: All right, thank you so much. Have a good show.

ROB: You too.

Thank you for listening. The Marketing Agency Leadership Podcast is presented by Converge. Converge helps digital marketing agencies and brands automate their reporting so they can be more profitable, accurate, and responsive. To learn more about how Converge can automate your marketing reporting, email info@convergehq.com, or visit us on the web at convergehq.com.

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