Published On: Wed, Apr 28th, 2021

A Guide to Reaching New Israeli Customers without Knowing Hebrew

By Contributing Author

Israel is disproportionately in the news, and that’s no surprise. The little nation on the eastern edge of the Mediterranean, with nine million citizens and an area the size of New Jersey punches way above its weight in terms of political, economic, and technological influence. Known as the Startup Nation for its tech innovation and more recently as the Vacci-Nation for its rapid success in inoculating the lion’s share of its population against COVID, Israel is now poised for a post-Corona boom. Though diplomatically strengthened by the recent Abraham Accords opening relations with the Emirates and additional Arab/Muslim states, there remain some barriers to be overcome to do business with Israel.

Overcoming the Jewish-Israeli Language Gap with Translation

Perhaps the biggest obstacle is language. Even for Jewish-run businesses abroad, there’s still a huge gap in communication due to the complexities of reading, writing, and speaking the ancient Hebrew tongue. This despite the fact that almost all of Israel’s 80% Jewish population, and a good proportion of its Muslim minority can do so. The number of American Jews who can read a bit of Israel’s primary language, most likely in a prayerbook, is a mere 13%, and other English-speaking Diaspora communities are around the same level. Far fewer can write or speak Hebrew, except perhaps to order some falafel, bevakasha. Part of the problem is an unfamiliar alphabet and character set. Even with Google translate, the right-to-left directionality will cause endless formatting problems. So what’s a businessperson to do to crack the lucrative Israeli consumer base without talking the talk?

Ofer Tirosh, founder and CEO of Tomedes, one of Israel’s veteran translation companies, discussed the conundrum of reaching Hebrew speakers. “A small segment of Israelis, especially those involved in export-oriented technology businesses, is fully fluent in English and even prefers to communicate in it for business. You can get away with speaking and communicating in English with them. But the overwhelming proportion of Israelis does not. Moreover, those who can speak and write in Hebrew will have an advantage in getting the attention of Hebrew speakers. They appreciate that you’re making an effort to communicate.”

Tips for Acquiring a Shortlist of Providers for English to Hebrew Translations

The solution, Tirosh says, is to work with an English-to-Hebrew translation service that guarantees error-free, low-cost, fast-turnaround solutions. Not necessarily his own, he is quick to add, though his agency has been in business more than 14 years and served more than 70,000 business clients. How should a businessperson looking to get into the Israeli market get started?

Have a well-connected Israeli relative, Tirosh quips. But, turning serious, he advises doing some web research which goes beyond language and touches on your target industry or market niche. “Every time you try to enter a new market, it’s essential to learn the jargon and technical terminology of that sector. So when you search for a translation agency, also mention both “Hebrew” and the market sector, whether it’s food, textiles, pharma, or whatever. The more exact your search, the more likely you’ll find a language services company that not only talks the talk but also walks the walk of your target audience.

Once you do your web research, and have a shortlist of candidate companies, you’ll want to do your due diligence to select the most suitable translation agency.  Companies in Israel may have the advantage of being able not only to provide translations but also related services in SEO, interpretation, subtitling and other skills necessary for successful communications. They may also offer auxiliary services like running a local marketing or advertising campaign for a specific sector or demographic within Israel.

Negotiating a Sweet Deal with an Israeli Translation Agency

Israelis are known for their directness in communications, although more experienced businesspeople in Israel have softened their approach. Still, Israel is in the Middle East. There is cultural joy in negotiating, and if you simply accept the asking price without a bit of give-and-take, you may be taken for being a freier, a venerable Yiddish epithet which translates into “sucker.”

After querying your shortlist of candidate translation agencies about their terms and conditions, ask about their rates. Typically, translation jobs are monetized by the wordcount of the source document. Therefore Hebrew-to-English may have a rate different than that of English-to-Hebrew translation, because Hebrew typically needs to use fewer words. But word count is only one factor. There’s the intangible about “comfort level” – make sure you’ll get an account manager who speaks your language. Also, ask about post-delivery guarantees. No one is perfect. Will the translation agency correct errors subsequently found in a document, and for how long? Better agencies offer up to a year.

When you’re close to signing a deal, here’s a tip. Ask the agency for a “chupar.” That’s juicy Hebrew slang for a treat or bonus, which means a “sweet” or a “bonus”. They’ll get a chuckle out of your request, and they’ll probably give you one just for asking. The closing chupar is part of essential Hebrew communication, and a sweet step toward doing successful business in Israel.

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