By John Frei, cofounder and CEO of SpeechTrans

15 years ago, globalization was a story about big multinational companies spreading their influence across a flattening world. Today, globalization includes the little guys – international reach, facilitated by the internet, has become a growth machine for small-to-midsize businesses (SMBs) now able to source and sell products almost everywhere. The world’s 6,600 spoken languages are the biggest barrier left – but translation technology is quickly changing the game. Businesses that understand the latest trends in translation technology are going to gain a significant advantage in international markets.

Small Businesses – Great Need and Least Access

Machine translation technology is taking off rapidly in part because the small business world has a huge, unmet need for it. According to the Small Business Administration, less than one percent of America’s 30 million companies export goods and service, but SMBs account for 98% of U.S. exporters. More than half of these companies export to a single foreign country, often because legal, logistical and linguistic barriers are such a deterrent to expansion.

Multilingual translation services are usually too expensive for SMBs. The global translation industry generates $37 billion per year according to the consulting firm Common Sense Advisory (CSA), and it didn’t grow to that size by making translation cost-effective. In a large way, militaries, governmental organizations, multinationals and other cost-insensitive institutions drove the growth of the industry. Even phone-based interpreters can cost upwards of $3 per minute.

The notion that ‘everyone’ speaks English is simply wrong. Out of roughly 7.2 billion people, there are only 1.2 billion English speakers worldwide, according to the SIL International’s Ethnologue. In the 2011 U.S. Census, more than 22 percent of people said they either don’t speak English well or don’t speak at all. At home and abroad, a lack of access to translation services is a serious barrier to business.

Machine Translation is Major Step Forward

To capture opportunities that were once behind language barriers, SMBs are combining machine translation with crowdsourced translation services, all powered by smartphones, tablets and computers. For small businesses, this combination is faster, more useful and more cost-effective than any alternative.

It’s not rocket science that a business would have trouble acquiring foreign customers if there’s a language barrier. However, translation technology often fits more holistically into the operations of an SMB navigating globalization. Three use cases are often overlooked until they become problematic:

1.      Business Travel. An executive at a major US financial services company was in Tokyo and hailed a taxi to get to a crucial meeting. The driver couldn’t understand a word of English, and the executive had no Japanese vocabulary. He missed the meeting and lost the deal [Full disclosure: I know this story because he is now piloting translation technology offered by my company SpeechTrans]. From transportation and lodging to health emergencies, translation technology makes business travelers safer and more effective.

2.      Collaboration between outsourced talent. It’s common practice now for businesses to outsource software development, graphic design and data projects to foreign workers. Language barriers are common – especially when outsourced talent in let’s say Ukraine and China are working on the same project. Machine translation over the phone, web conferences and instant message can be essential in these situations.

 3.      Tradeshows. At international tradeshows and exhibitions, you’re bound to connect with people who don’t speak your language(s). Mobile translation tech can create opportunities in scenarios where interpreters are likely unavailable. The foreign speaker will no doubt appreciate your effort to overcome the language barrier.

Machine translation is quickly becoming standard on web devices. I recommend combining machine translation and crowdsourced translation so you have tech for ‘big picture’ exchanges and human interpreters for situations that require attention to fine detail. Whether you’re globalizing already or just hoping to, give your business an edge with translation tech.

John Frei is the co-founder and CEO of SpeechTrans.  @SpeechTrans