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Speaking Their Language: How to Localize Your Message for Global Customers

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Can you read Chinese? I suggest you find a way. Or find a way to get your message, your product information, and your Web site into Chinese.

It's estimated that by 2015 China will have a middle class twice the size of the entire US—more than 600 million people—with disposable incomes. Even with our current recession, China could generate $860 billion in retail sales in 2009, according to Wikinvest. 

How about Hindi, Bengali, or any of the scores of languages spoken in India? The billion-strong population is experiencing a similar jump in middle-class wealth. India's middle class is expected to grow to 40 percent, from just 5 percent, to make it the fifth largest consumer market in the world in 2025. In 2005, private spending reached about 17 trillion Indian rupees ($372 billion).

I haven't even mentioned Spanish (spoken by 350 million inside and outside the US), German (the largest country in Europe, excluding Russia, and one of the world's strongest economies), or Japanese (a top worldwide exporter with a consumer culture that's equally famous worldwide).

Speaking their languages is good business in any kind of economic climate. And now, with worldwide recession, I'd be safe in saying surviving—and even thriving—hinges on effectively reaching out to the world's non-English speaking consumers.


Translate, Localize—Seriously

Many companies already recognize the value of translations for reaching that vast worldwide audience. They've been having product information, press releases, and marketing and advertising copy converted into the languages of their current and potential customers for years.

But smart companies realize that to strike a chord with more buyers, they'll have to "localize" their messages so that audiences will feel that everything about an electronic or printed communication has been produced by someone just like them. Not only is the text in their language (with proper idioms and slang), but the graphics, navigation buttons and user interface are familiar. In short, nothing hinders the flow of information—or elicits a chuckle.

I'm not sure how much Pepsi was sold in Taiwan after its "Come Alive with Pepsi" campaign was mistranslated to "Pepsi brings your ancestors back from the dead." But I'll bet there were lots of laughs over it.

The Internet's informal catalog of embarrassing missed translations is well worth a look. Take the Chinese-to-English translation for the (bootlegged?) film "300" about the tiny Spartan force that fought to the death against a huge invading Persian army in the Battle of Thermopylae in 480 BC. Thousands of viewers have seen it on YouTube. Beneath photos of stern warriors, some in gritty battle scenes, are such subtitled lines as "you are a bad egg only"; "only have strong noodles"; and "protect your dinner."

Unless you're selling humor, take translation and localization seriously. If you're going to spend thousands—or millions—developing and selling anything, take the time to have your message created in a well-written version of the audience's language. While you may not see your poor translations displayed for mass derision on the Internet, even one misunderstanding is one too many.

Companies That Get It

Most translators and agencies acknowledge that it's better not to hear from their customers—unless they're offering praise. That means the translation was correct and everybody's happy.

The following companies are examples of those that have taken translation/localization seriously. Google, HP, American Express, Philips, Skype, Ericsson, Procter & Gamble, and Cisco have done more than just stay off YouTube. They've successfully promoted their brand by keeping in mind the cultural and language differences of their global audiences.

Briefly, they have...

  • Provided Web sites in multiple languages and for multiple countries with easy access directly from the homepage
  • Made sure each country's Web site contains images and content specific to the country and/or ethnic group at which it is targeted
  • Created each micro site to have the same look, feel, and tone as the main corporate Web site, preserving the brand
  • Ensured that despite the wealth of content each site loads quickly and is easy to navigate

Internationalization, Globalization: What's the Difference?

Those two words look like they'd mean the same thing, but there are fine differences that the above-mentioned companies have taken to heart.

Once you've gotten the labor-intensive translation and localization done and proofed, you should take that content and design all your documents, campaigns, and products to easily adapt to the various languages and regional markets—and, here's the key—without the need for major engineering on your Web sites. That's "internationalization," and it's a process that pays for itself in as many languages as you support.

Globalization is the integration of localization throughout a company—into marketing, sales, and support. Think about it: How prominent are the nationalities of the companies listed? The average Ericsson customer likely doesn't know it's part of a 132-year-old Swedish firm headquartered in Stockholm.

Avoid Translation/Localization Missteps

In these trying economic times, it may be tempting to want to rush to cheap translation and localization solutions (such as machine translation). But if you think the YouTube video was a laugh, you haven't seen anything until you've read some translations produced by software that essentially does word-for-word adaptation, often without regard for grammar or even basic comprehension.

Here's how the Spanish question "Cómo se llama" (What is your name) came out in the following translation programs:

  • BabelFish: How is it called?
  • InTrans: How do you call you?
  • FreeTranslation.com: How yourself call-up?

I just shake my head whenever I see the Web sites for respected, multinational corporations with the telltale button for instant translation. Instant usually equates to incomprehensible.

Remember, your image to the world may only be through a Web site. Make that image the best you can do. As your mother said, you'll never have a second chance at a good first impression.

So, if I have convinced you to take translation/localization seriously—if you're ready to polish your image and would like make your translation project as affordable and painless as possible—here are some things to keep in mind when you work with a translator or translation/localization agency:

  1. Documents or text in plain text files or XML are easier to work with.
  2. Be aware that translations from English into other languages can result in a 25% or higher expansion in number of words.
  3. Keep embedded images generic and keep original PSD files (a layered file proprietary to Adobe Photoshop) for easy editing. Avoid having text within a graphic, if possible.
  4. Minimally use Macromedia Flash since it can be difficult to edit and not all audiences have the high-speed Internet access necessary to easily view them. Use the Strings capability in Flash, allowing text to be externalized in XML files.
  5. Build a graphic library and keep it up to date with images and graphics that can be swapped based on the age, gender, and race of differing regional audiences.
  6. Alphabet differences have to be kept in mind, particularly with non-Latin characters. Use Unicode encoding, which supports all world alphabets.

Finally, no matter whom you work with, never scrimp on the reviewing time. Everyone needs an editor both to catch the missed translations and to double-check that the nuances of wording, images, the entire user experience convey precisely what you intend—completely chortle-free.


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Chanin Ballance is CEO at MobilePaks. She frequently speaks and writes about learning, mobile engagement, sales enablement solutions, and more.

LinkedIn: Chanin Ballance

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  • by Medical Translation Blog Tue Mar 24, 2009 via web

    Thank you for a good article. The one area where translation (and even localization) doesn't make sense is international advertising. Here are a couple of great quotes from Simon Anholt in his book "Another one bites the grass: Making sense of international advertising":

    "Translating advertising copy is like painting the tip of an iceberg and hoping the whole thing will turn red: what makes copy work is not the words themselves, but subtle combinations of those words ... These are precisely the subtleties which translation fails to convey."

    And:
    "Translating [advertising] copy is like boiling lettuce. No matter how carefully you do it, the result is always disappointing."

    Thanks,

    Andres
    www.MedicalTranslationBlog.com

  • by Angela Tue Mar 24, 2009 via web

    Thank you, Chanin, for a great article. Andres, I agree that translating creative work is a challenge, but there are certainly ways to achieve effective results. You need to work with quality translators that are native speakers and have a marketing/advertising industry background. Additionally, the translated copy has to be evaluated by a native editor, who lives in the target country and proofread by a brand expert.
    CETRA Language Solutions
    www.cetra.com

  • by Janine Tue Mar 24, 2009 via web

    One of the things we recommend to our clients is to edit their English content before we translate it for them. This helps deal with the language expansion that Chanin mentions. Another thing companies should do is test a few key pages to measure how they convert. Websites do not necessarily need all the original copy and pages replicated to work in another country.

    P & L Translations

  • by Amanda Tue Mar 24, 2009 via web

    "As your mother said, you'll never have a second chance at a good first impression. " %3E

    I would also add: "As your mother said, you get what you pay for." Quality, Quality, Quality... U.S. companies, both small and large, are starting to pick up on this. There's money on the table. Will you get it or will someone else?

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