The Australian navy is reported to have spent nearly $700 million on a long-awaited anti-submarine torpedo from a European consortium only to have to spend an additional $110,000 translating critical technical documents.
There is, of course, far more to the story. The Australian navy did receive general documents about the weapons system in English. (The manufacturer is a European consortium of French and Italian companies). This purchase has come under fire in Australia because it’s taken over 13 years to complete, is over budget, and there is doubt that the weapon will meet the Australian navy’s needs. Spending another $110,000 on translating technical documentation not included in the purchase contract simply added insult to injury.
This is a great lesson for those of us working in international trade. First of all, it turns out that contracts are important! So important in fact, that you should be sure to include clauses about how knowledge will be transferred. (Mention “knowledge transfer” and everyone starts paying attention. It sounds a lot sexier than “documentation,” doesn’t it?)
No matter what you call it, make sure you are addressing how information about a product will be handled as part of a contract of sale. For example, if you are buying a piece of equipment from a foreign manufacturer, make sure you know:
- If user documentation is included with the product.
- If so, the types of documents are included (user, operator, administrator, maintenance manuals, etc.).
- How the documents will be provided (hard copy, CD/DVD, web-based, embedded, carrier pigeon, etc.).
- Which language(s) the documents will be provided in.
- When documentation will be provided.
The Australian navy accuses the media of not getting the facts straight. They claim that the media jumped to conclusions about documentation only being provided in French and Italian. The Australian navy did, in fact, receive user documentation in English. What was being translated at an additional cost was test data that would save the Australian navy from having to run batteries of tests that may have been run already. This will actually save Australian taxpayers money, since such firing tests are expensive.
Regardless, let’s look at this through a corporate lens. If the taxpayers are analogous to your managers (or whoever approves your budgets) and the Australian navy is you (the person responsible for the purchase of that new piece of equipment), do you think your managers would be happy to hear that they need to spend more money after they have already approved a budget? No. Even if it means saving money.
And, let’s turn the tables. Let’s say you are the manufacturer, and you are selling your company’s product to a foreign buyer. You have reassured them and even written in the sales contract that user documentation will be provided in their language. However, after receiving the product they learn that to properly configure and test the product they have to translate a whole other technical manual. Will they be happy? Do you think they might even feel mislead or at least dissatisfied with the purchase?
If you are the seller, make sure you are providing your customers documents in their languages. Yes, this costs money, but so does losing customers. It’s an investment in your international sales when executed properly. If you are the buyer, make sure you are getting everything you think you are paying for. If you ask for documentation in English that isn’t normally delivered with the product, you’ll need to negotiate this with the seller. Don’t let a sale or purchase be torpedoed by product documentation!