Of all the angles that have been scrutinized in the merger of Chrysler Corp. and Daimler-Benz AG, one fundamental question has been largely overlooked: Will employees be able to communicate effectively across the two companies?

Daimler-Benz employees already understand English pretty well, partly due to the company's global customer base and an educational system in Germany that requires English instruction for its students.

But on this side of the Atlantic, English is the only communication tool that matters.

When DaimlerChrysler AG declared English as the company's official language last year, it surely was done in deference to American resistance to take foreign languages seriously.

The DaimlerChrysler merger does not stand in isolation. Across the industry, automakers are looking for partners and expanding operations overseas. So what's the answer for automakers that want to hold dearly to their native tongue? Translation services. The more the industry goes global, the greater their demand.

Alpnet, a Belgium-based translation company counts many automakers and suppliers among its clients. In 1997 the company translated 75 million words - approximately 35% of its global efforts - for the automotive industry, primarily into English, French, German, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, Dutch, Swedish, Finnish, Norwegian, Japanese, Chinese and Thai. And these figures don't include other related services, such as software localization, computer-based training, multimedia applications, and Website localization. Alpnet says automotive and information technology (IT) are its fastest-growing sectors.

For experts in multilingual documentation, there's serious concern about how well companies such as DaimlerChrysler will be able to conquer language issues.

"The biggest problem they'll have is coordinating a standardization of terminology, a publication style and developing one documentation software program." says Uus Krops, the GM project manager at LANT, a Belgium-based technology translator.

The communication challenge becomes even more complex because many Europeans learn British English, not American English (see accompanying sidebar). And it's not always just two languages involved: Consider the language challenges in Volkswagen AG's recent acquisition of both Britain's (Rolls Royce) Bentley and Italy's Lamborghini.

"If you can't agree on a common language - which is very hard to do, at least throughout an entire organization - then you have to translate a lot of materials that people may not think of as needing to be translated," says Deane Dayton, director of Worldwide Translation Production for New Jersey-based Berlitz Translation Services. Such materials include:

n Interoffice communications: memos, faxes, training materials, etc.

n Owners' manuals.

n Marketing materials for dealers' use.

n Direct-to-consumer promotions.

n Maintenance and service manuals.

But the challenges go beyond simply translating. Terminology becomes an issue - to illustrate, German doesn't include a phrase for "line management." Controlling language usage and documentation processes becomes critical.

LANT is among the translation technology firms leading the way. Early this year, the company signed a multimillion-dollar contract with GM's STG (service technology group) to handle the automaker's annual 50,000 pages of documentation. LANT will automate the system by controlling English usage and controlling syntax.

Similar programs in the aeronautics industry control usage by reducing working vocabulary to 2,000 words. LANT's goal is to reduce the automobile industry's working vocabulary to 40,000 words (more than 200,000 words exist in English). Limiting the vocabulary paves the way for automated machine translation.

LANT's syntax work identifies phrases that cause difficulty for automated translation software. For example, the program makes sure every noun phrase is preceded by an article, as in this instruction: Apply sufficient force to control [the] handles.

To address such issues, companies are turning more to technology solutions to supplement human translations.

"We use tools such as TSS (translation support system), our proprietary computer-aided translation (CAT) tool, SGML, HTML, other languages, and Inter-net push-and-pull technologies. We also maintain relationships with companies developing tools such as controlled language, machine translation, and speech recognition," explains Danielle Faubert-Leschuk, project manager of Alpnet Canada Inc.'s Automotive Translation and Publishing Services. "In essence, we are no longer translating but are really managing information globally."

Ned S. McClurg, general manager of engineering operations, GM Powertrain, says, "Learning to overcome language barriers is part of the 'patience' of global engineering."

But he quickly adds that in globalization, the "language barrier" may be over-exaggerated - not all that many people in a large corporation will actually be required to communicate with the other company. "The number of people who have to accept major change is fairly small. The essence of their jobs doesn't change." o

- Jean Cook is a Minneapolis-based freelance writer.