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Give Me More Tongue

By Kristin Gambill and Christy Crews

Originally Posted

Ever have to join your girlfriends or buddies at the bar a little late? While you were finishing up an eternal conference call or wrapping up an urgent, 5:30 p.m. Friday afternoon request from your boss, there they sat, tossing back the brewskies and chatting up the week in review: work, home, spouse, significant other, car troubles, you name it. By the time you get there, your friends are lit like candles on a birthday cake and when you join them with a friendly "Hey! How's it goin'?" they giggle in drunken delight at some inside joke you missed by not being there. All of us could use a good translator every now and again for our English conversations. Conversing with someone in a different tongue just amplifies communication breakdowns. Good old English leaves much room for misunderstanding and conjecture, both in the bar and in your business. Don't add to the confusion by providing only a single-language Web site if you have an international, multilingual customer base. Belly up to the bar now and we'll give you the lowdown on the multiple challenges of multilingual sites. The Approach The first step in deciding whether to translate your site is, of course, to understand how to best communicate with your customer base. For foreign customers, determining where they are physically located is essential. After all, if you can't reach them physically, are you really reaching them at all? You can find physical locations by poking through your database for addresses from orders or by reviewing your traffic logs to locate visitors' server locations. For domestic customers, you can use a site poll to determine language needs, or you can use secondary research to help make an educated guess as to their needs. A report published in 2000 by the U.S. Department of Commerce reported that the American Hispanic population had the lowest Internet penetration rate with 23.7 percent. This compared with 50.3 percent of Whites, 49.4 percent of Asian/Pacific Islanders, and 29.3 percent of Blacks. According to a survey by the Association of Hispanic Advertising Agencies (AHAA), nearly half of U.S. Hispanic Internet users speak Spanish as the primary language in their homes. Many U.S. companies may be missing the opportunity to better serve their Hispanic clients on line with a Spanish version of their site. Next, you need to determine which languages will give you the most exposure to your overall market. For example, if your firm is expanding into Europe, you will most likely want to reach as much of the European Union as possible. While 11 official languages are spoken in the 15 member countries, translating your Web site into all 11 may not be necessary. First, 16 percent of E.U. citizens speak English as their native tongue. Second, in Greece, the Netherlands, and the Scandinavian countries of Denmark, Finland, and Sweden, English is widely spoken. Because these countries also have relatively small populations compared to the entire European Union, you could probably get by without translating your site into each of these tongues. However, if you find from your traffic logs that Greece is a particularly hot market for your product, you may increase your popularity with those customers by providing your info in their mother tongue. The Insertion At the corporate headquarters of a large retailer where Kristin used to work, a rapid expansion beyond the traditional continental 48-state borders -- into Mexico, Puerto Rico, and Canada -- was taking place. One sign the marketing department produced to promote their handbags touted a sale on all bolsas. In Mexico, la bolsa is a purse or handbag. However, in Puerto Rico, it's a cheap plastic grocery store bag. Worse yet, in the Dominican Republic (and there is a significant Dominican population in Puerto Rico), it is slang term for "The Family Jewels." (Which also is a slang term, but that's a different article.) This marketing blunder resulted in the company developing two versions of all Spanish signage: one for Spanish-speaking U.S. markets and Mexico and another version for Puerto Rico. William Reed is an engineer with Black & Veatch who was recently in charge of presenting a series of IT training courses for environmental software to a corporate client in Puerto Rico. "My assistant instructor taught his portion of the course is Spanish," Reed says. "However, he is originally from Bolivia, and his Spanish is quite different than that of our Puerto Rican audience. After a few moments, the course attendees asked him to speak English rather than Spanish, because it was easier for them to understand him that way. ... I guess it would be equivalent to an American sitting in on a training session delivered in Elizabethan English!" Just as British English differs dramatically from American English, the Spanish spoken in Spain differs from the Spanish spoken in Mexico, which differs from the Spanish spoken in Puerto Rico. The same holds true for the French spoken in France versus that in Canada. Use the most neutral form of each language for greatest appeal worldwide. The moral to this story is:

When translating your site...

  • Be sure to employ educated, native speakers of the language to do your translation. While a machine translation is useful for a quick, easy understanding of the gist of a site or an email message in a foreign language, it is a rotten way to translate your entire site.

  • Give your translator as much information as possible! Jan van Oosten, a translator with the European Union, stressed the importance of this, recounting a freelance project he once did for a U.S.-based agricultural equipment company. "I had to translate an ad for a farming tool that I didn't even have a picture of," he says. "Very difficult!" Share photos, brochures, and as much product information as possible with your translator.

  • Consider back-translation, even though it's a bit pricier than other methods. Back-translation employs two translators -- one who translates from English into the foreign language and another, independent translator who translates from the foreign language back into English. This process helps guarantee that slang words, cultural references, idiomatic expressions, and other "no-no's" have been removed from your copy.

Different Styles

While on the path of the multilingual site, several examples popped up that involved not only translation, but also ways to communicate the language choices that were available.

  • In France, on their national train system site, content is available in the native French and in English, Spanish, German, Italian, and Dutch. However, the way one accesses the English version is by selecting the Union Jack. Now, we were, as usual, drinking while navigating the Web that night, but we sat and stared at those flags for 10 minutes searching in vain for the Stars and Stripes before realizing that the Union Jack would provide the version we needed.

  • Meanwhile, at the Memorial of Caen site, a museum in Normandy dedicated to World War II and its ramifications, the English version of the visitor's guide has both the British and U.S. flags on its cover. Close, but no cigar for them. First, Canada played as significant a role in D-Day operations as Britain and the United States, yet their flag is not portrayed. Second, the Web site offers only the Union Jack as the symbol for the English-language version. If you're going to do the flag-as-substitute-for-language trick, go all the way!

  • Our favorite communication technique was on a good old American site, for Soroptimist International of the Americas. They offer the site in English, Spanish, and Japanese, and the labels are spelled out in text links in each individual language. Forget all the flag stuff, just spell it out so we can read it in Japanese!

Perfect Your Technique

Of course, it is important to reiterate last week's point: Translation is not the end of it. If you have site content available in seven different languages, you should be providing customer support in those languages as well. Translating your site may also require you to make adjustments to your basic site design, just like a new girlfriend may need you to adjust your kissing style for her. Some pointers:

  • You may need to tweak -- even overhaul -- your basic site design to accommodate translated content. For example, German words are typically much longer than English words. As a result, you may need to be fine-tune your tables for information in German.

  • In many foreign countries, Internet users access the World Wide Web on their cellular phones as frequently as -- or more often than -- they do via computer. Be sure your site is easily navigable at a variety of resolutions by employing universal Web design strategies.

  • Translation into other languages will be necessary to be included in foreign language search engines. For example, if your Web site has content in Spanish, you can get listed on Spanish-language Web sites. As a result, when Spanish-speaking surfers do searches for your keywords, they are more likely to find your product.

Using the basic information we've so graciously provided, there are basically two approaches to developing your multilingual Web presence:

  1. Translate every English page into the desired foreign language, essentially creating a "mirror" of the English site, just in a different language. This approach is the simplest, most cost-effective option for reaching foreign and multilingual customers.

  2. A more sophisticated option is to develop a unique Web site in each language, if possible, directing the site visitor to a separate, country-specific URL like http://www.marketingbabes.fr or http://www.marketingbabes.uk. While the content and structure of the foreign language site would be similar to the original, it would be unique to the target market, so that products and services would be better suited to their unique needs. Eddie Bauer does this with their Japanese language site.

Right now may or may not be the time for you to translate your site into another language. But if you have a presence on the World Wide Web, chances are you will receive an order, email inquiry, or other correspondence from abroad before long. Knowing what you do now about international and intercultural communication will give you an edge. As Internet adoption rates continue to rise outside of North America and more and more non-English-speaking Internet users come on line every day, the percentage of Web pages written in English will continue to decline. Plan ahead, so you're more prepared than your competition to address the ever-changing business environment!

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