In some ways the world has never been smaller. The internet has changed the way we communicate and has opened up a host of potential new markets to businesses. From Bangalore to Beijing your website is only a click away from anyone with an internet connection. That’s the theory anyway. Geographical borders might not mean much when it comes to electronic communication but cultural and linguistic borders remain. It takes a little more effort to reach an international audience than simply setting up your little corner of cyberspace and hoping for the best.
The growth of the foreign language internet
Gone are the days when English could be relied upon to serve as a lingua franca or common language online. It’s true that English remains the single most commonly used language online but it represents only around a quarter of total usage. Other languages are also rising at far faster rates. Where English grew by 301% between 2000 and 2011, Arabic usage increased by a massive 2,501%. As internet penetration increases in emerging markets, internet usage in Russian, Chinese, Latin American Spanish and Brazilian Portuguese is also on the rise.
Additionally, many people access sites using English as a second language. A recent survey of users within the European Union found that 48% of surfers would use English at least occasionally. This varies from country to country. 90% of Internet users in Cyprus, 97% in Malta and 85% in Greece and Sweden would use an English language website if the information was not readily available in their own language, but only 35% of Italians, 47% of Romanians and 50% of French would do likewise. Users place far more trust in websites written in their own native language, especially when it comes to making a purchase. Only 18% of users frequently buy online in another language, and 42% said they never buy online in a language other than their own.
Many companies are recognising the importance of localization. A recent study found that 58% of Fortune 500 companies have multilingual websites, and 70 percent of America’s biggest companies have some localized content.
Lost in translation
There are numerous instances of companies whose message has been lost in translation. When Pepsi took their slogan “Come alive with the Pepsi Generation” to Taiwan it was mistranslated as “Pepsi brings your ancestors back from the dead”. That’s one Taste Test we’d be interested in seeing. Not to be outdone, Kentucky Fried Chicken’s famous “Finger lickin’ good” came out in China as “Eat your fingers off.”
These might raise a chuckle now but global brands like Pepsi and KFC have the resources to bounce back from the occasional embarrassing faux pas. For smaller businesses an international marketing disaster could have more serious ramifications.
It’s tempting to think that automatic translation programs can provide a cheap and easy solution. They certainly have their uses and can be great for getting the gist of a piece of content, but even the best automatic translation is prone to contextual errors. They can also have problems with colloquialisms, slang, abbreviations and other linguistic variations. Native-speaking translators – preferably ones who live in the target market – offer a far
better solution. As well as helping ensure that your translation is accurate they can also help catch any potential cultural faux pas. If your style and content demand it, they can add a more conversational and ‘local’ tone. Sometimes transcreation is a better option than a straight translation. This is the process of taking your core message and adapting it to best appeal to a new target audience.
Translating keywords is particularly important. Recent updates to Google’s search algorithm mean that peppering keywords throughout the content and working to specific keyword density is less important. Relevant keywords still identify your content to the search engines however, and it’s essential to get them right. You should never rely on automatic translation for keywords as colloquialisms, abbreviations and alternative terms may all be more effective than a straight dictionary translation.
A straight French translation of the term ‘car insurance’, for example, would be ‘l’assurance automobile’. This makes a poorly performing keyword, with ‘assurance auto’ being far more effective. You don’t have to ditch your carefully researched English language keywords but use them as a jumping off point rather than a definitive list. Brainstorm alternatives with the help of a native translator and run them through Google’s local sites to gauge their effectiveness.
About the Author
Christian Arno is the founder of Lingo24, a top translation service in the USA. Launched in 2001, Lingo24 now has over 180 employees spanning three continents and clients in over sixty countries. In the past twelve months, they have translated over forty million words for businesses in every industry sector, including the likes of MTV, World Bank and American Express. Follow Lingo24 on Twitter: @Lingo24.