Guest Blog: International Trade Show Planning – Language and Culture

July 25, 2017

By Myriam Siftar, CEO, MTM LinguaSoft

Are you planning to exhibit at an international trade show? You’ll want to make a positive first impression, and you’ll have to overcome barriers of language and culture in order to do it. We’ve been invited by Embarq Creative to share some tips on how – and when – to incorporate language services and cultural training into your international trade show planning.

A close partnership with Nimlok, with locations both in the US and in the UK, allows Embarq Creative to serve clients here and abroad. A creative team based in the local culture will help you adapt your exhibit for maximum appeal to your prospects. What issues should you expect to arise when planning an international trade show exhibit?

Adapting Design for International Shows


Addressing translation issues early in the process is important to good design. If your booth design includes text, have it translated into the local language. An eye-catching invitation that takes into account in-country preferences will attract more visitors. However, preferences for colors, fonts, and imagery can all vary across cultures. There are several issues that need to be taken into account for any kind of graphic design for translation:

  • Allow space for text expansion. Some languages require up to 30% more characters than English to express the same idea; others (for example, Chinese) require fewer characters and some have preferential orientation for text  (for example, Japanese language uses both horizontal and vertical writing).
  • Make sure your font will work. If you are using a custom font, it might not be able to support all the characters needed for a foreign language (such as non-Latin characters and accent marks). Common font families (Ariel, Times, Calibri) work well across multiple languages.
  • Be careful about style choices. You can use text effects with common Western European languages such as German, French, or Spanish, but italics, for example, aren’t used in Asian and Middle Eastern languages.
  • Don’t provide text embedded in graphics. If a graphic does not include the text on a separate, editable layer, the translated version will have to be re-created from scratch, driving up costs and lead time.

Translating business cards

Of course you’ll want to translate business cards, providing the English text on one side of the card, and the translated text on the other. You should also be ready for the formalities of business card exchange. In Japan and China, for example, it’s important to present and receive business cards with both hands, carefully study the information on the card, then respectfully tuck it in a card holder. Scribbling a note on it and throwing it in a fishbowl would be disrespectful.

Translating technical / product information

A 2014 survey by Common Sense Advisory (“Can’t Read, Won’t Buy”) found that 75% of 3000 global consumers indicated that, when faced with a choice between two similar products or services, they would choose the one offered in their native language. Readers experience cognitive strain when absorbing information in a second language. Translation speeds the customer journey by removing barriers to understanding. Even if many buyers in a foreign market have high English fluency, translating key materials enhances their understanding of your product AND demonstrates your commitment to doing business in that country.

With every translation completed, your translation partner will be adding to a “translation memory.” This is a database of paired segments of source (English) and target (translated) text. If sections of text are repeated in different contexts, you will pay less for pre-translated segments when materials are updated or used for different purposes (for example, if you eventually translate your website). In addition, a translation memory ensures consistency of terminology and style throughout all your corporate content.

Transcreation for advertising and marketing copy

Even if your advertising text is minimal, it will require a different treatment than business cards or technical materials. Think about the amount of effort it took to get your slogans and taglines exactly right in English. It takes talent to write creatively in English; the same is true of every language. The dangers of relying on quick, literal translations (like those provided by Google Translate) are well-documented: for example, an early Chinese translation of KFC’s “Finger-Licking Good” was “Eat Your Fingers Off.” Even Apple made a gaffe with the 2016 release of the iPhone 7 in Hong Kong, where the slogan “This is 7” sounded off-color in Cantonese. Apple is one of the world’s strongest global brands, so a few snickers hardly make a dent in their reputation.  But if you are making a first impression, you can’t be so cavalier. Transcreation is done by translators with copywriting skills in their native language. They are tasked with capturing the same “feeling” or emotion as the original, not just its literal meaning. More freedom and flexibility to stray from the original allows transcreators to write copy that packs the same punch as it does in English. But it also requires more time and revision, so it can’t be left until the last minute.

Cultural differences in international business

Unspoken rules around hospitality can impact your relationship with a potential business partner right from the start. In fact, different cultures have different expectations about the role of “hospitality” at a trade show. What to provide in the way of refreshments and how much time you should be prepared to invest in “small talk” will vary across countries. In many countries outside the U.S., business agreements move relatively slowly, because of the importance of first establishing a solid basis of personal familiarity and trust.

Knowing how to greet guests and respond appropriately to social cues will give you an edge over less well-prepared competitors. To this end, your staff could benefit from cultural competency training, customized to enhance the soft skills of your booth staff. Your staff will learn strategies for bridging cultural differences and information about what is expected from trade show exhibitors in a particular country. If you train your “away team” of executives and staffers beforehand, and the event proves successful in gaining new foreign clients, knowledge can be diffused to other team members as overseas business relationships grow.

Will you need an interpreter?

If you do not have bilingual team members who are able to converse easily in the local language, you should consider hiring an interpreter to help your staff communicate. This should be arranged at the same time that you book the show, because talented local interpreters to work the show will be in high demand. Your trade show partner and/or language partner can help you find a local interpreter who is familiar with your industry. In addition to their language skills and technical knowledge, a professional interpreter can be an invaluable resource for navigating local business customs and expectations.

In conclusion

Attending an international trade show requires a lot of advance planning. The logistics of moving people and materials across national borders are daunting and complex, but you shouldn’t let these overshadow the equally important work of communicating with the visitors to your booth. Don’t leave linguistic and cultural issues to the last minute; incorporate them into your planning from the very start.

If you have questions about how translation services and cultural training can enhance your business success, please feel free to email me at siftar (at), or call us at 215-729-6765.

Branding Beyond the Booth:

Embarq Creative is holding an open house! Join us in welcoming our three guest speakers, Bill Haley, CEO of Allied Pixel, Betsy McLarney, CEO of EMC Outdoor, and Mazda Miles, Chief Event Strategist of Perfection Events. Each speaker will discuss their unique perspective on marketing to increase traffic to your exhibit space and improve your visibility beyond the booth!