Saturday, 1st September 2007
Anja Chemnitz Thygesen
Conducting research in another language can be tricky, especially if you speak only your mother tongue. Being a native Danish speaker with knowledge of English, French, German and Portuguese, I have the advantage of understanding written information in Italian, Spanish, Dutch, Swedish and Norwegian. Still, I often struggle when it comes to specialised topics in which I may only know the business terms in either Danish or English. This article outlines some of the lessons I have learned from researching in foreign language markets.
Know the business in your own language
To understand and translate into another language, you have to know and understand what you are researching in your own language. Start out by gaining an understanding of the market structure and how the market is functioning. Are the competitors usually working in exactly the same field or is there an overlap? What does the value chain look like?
I recently worked on a competitor analysis for a company that provided direct mail and letter shop services. In my research, I discovered that the main competitors were actually the distribution companies (postal services) because they were moving into the market with heavy capital and systematically taking over the competitors. This kind of information about the wider market and what happens in it can help you, even if you're looking at another country with other competitors.
Translate key terms
One of the first things to do once you understand the business in your own language is to translate the key terms you are going to use in your research into the foreign language. Often you can do this by finding a homepage about the topic that is available in both English and in the foreign language. By going through the English version in detail and later the foreign language version, you may be able to get a good idea of key terms. Remember always to cross-check the information by looking up the word in a foreign language dictionary and checking more than one source.
Get a good dictionary or try automatic translation
If you have problems defining your key terms you may use dictionaries to help. There are many free Internet-based dictionaries that can help in your initial search. However, I often find that they offer little or no explanation about the terms and are completely lacking in context. This makes it difficult for you to verify if the word you find is the right one. In other words, you get what you pay for. If you want a good dictionary, it will probably not be free of charge.
That said, here are some of the better free-of-charge dictionaries:
Use a local search engine
Once you start searching for information you'll run into problems if you limit your search to just international search engines. A local search engine can help you define your terms and also find relevant websites. Often you will also be able to browse through such search engines and find pertinent information.
You can find local European search engines at Network Technologies' European Search Engines, Directories and Lists <http://www.netmasters.co.uk/european_search_engines/>.
Another place to look is Search Engine Colossus <http://searchenginecolossus.com/>, which offers links to more countries, but is of a poorer quality.
Always remember to use advanced search features in the global search engines (such as Google). In some cases it may be useful to limit your search either by language or by geography to get exactly the sites that are relevant to your research work. Although these search features may not always work that well, it definitely does limit the breadth of your search.
English-only searching limits
It can be tempting to click on the English flag on a website and get information in a language that you understand. Company websites and websites of public services often have a portion of their site translated into English. Unfortunately the English pages often contain just a part and not the most recent information available. To get the most valuable and detailed information you will have to screen the pages in the local language and try to navigate through to the information you are looking for.
One of the big Web surfing paradoxes is that you often find information in English far down in the hierarchy of Web pages, and only after surfing through numerous pages in a local language. This makes it even more valuable to have at least some understanding of the key terms you are looking for in the local language.
Use languages you know as a gateway
As mentioned at the beginning, understanding two Latin-derived languages has been a gateway for me to understand other Latin languages as well. You often come across homepages where the English version is very slim compared to the pages available in the native language. This makes it necessary to be creative and try your luck with the pages in the local language (as long as the alphabet is more or less the same as the one you know). By guessing and trying to read with an open mind you will often be able to understand more than you may have thought.
However these lucky guesses should always be double-checked, either by finding the same information in a language you know or by getting a local language expert to confirm your assumptions.
Leverage your network
Perhaps you know someone who speaks the language in which you are researching ? Often they can help you and review what you have done to see if it is in line with their interpretation. I often get help from my colleagues, professional network, friends and family.
Make it a habit to ask people about their language skills even when you go out to dinner parties - it may be of great help to you later. Untrained researchers may not have your methodology skills but if you take your time and explain why you need the information, you can often get them to spend hours searching for you. A Polish friend once helped me find Polish companies within the telecom industry and actually continued sending me updates months after I had completed the research. In this way I managed to get very detailed and valuable information.
Remember the EU
The EU has a lot of material which has been translated into English. Often you can find it in local European languages as well. European Union A To Z Index is a gateway to the EU <http://eurunion.org/infores/euindex.htm>. Eurostat <http://epp.eurostat.ec.europa.eu> collects statistics from all the national statistical offices and you may be able to find quite a lot of updated information through this source.
Grab your phone
It may be quite useful to email or phone people even though it may be difficult to understand them. Quite often local specialists can guide you to the right information about the topic you are researching. One of our best examples is the national statistics offices, which are often helpful in translating key terms or guiding you to the right information on their website (which may actually be in English). You can find the country profiles with national statistics offices at globalEDGE <http://globaledge.msu.edu>.
And accept limitations
Sometimes you may misinterpret things based on your limited understanding of a foreign language. So, accept that there are things that you CANNOT do in a completely foreign language. You may be able to get an annual report and understand parts of it, but do not start to translate entire articles. It will be a waste of your time and can be dangerous to your client, who may get an incorrect picture of things. If you start translating articles and longer texts, you must have a good knowledge of the language and may even double check your information through an English source to make sure that the direction of the translation is not totally wrong. I once attempted to translate an article from German into Danish, and reached the conclusion that the market was declining, only later to find in English language sources that it was increasing.
If you have problems or need professional help, always turn to the ones that know the market - the local information professionals:
AIIP, the Association of Independent Information Professionals <http://www.aiip.org/AboutAIIP/directory_home.asp>. Use their directory to find contacts in specific geographic locations or about specific topics.
You may also contact your embassy in the location you are researching and get their assistance.
Or you may even create your own network of researchers in which you can exchange services. This is a good way of learning from each other and avoiding wasted time on research that you suspect will end up giving a poor result anyway. All in all you can do a lot of research in a foreign language if you use the right approach, use your creativity, your network and the tools available. However you should always double check critical information or get a person with local language skills to confirm your assumptions.
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