Global Marketing: Translation Challenges and What Languages Matter for Success

Posted on by Don DePalma

At the height of the dot.com frenzy more than a decade ago, I sat down with the venture backers and developers of an online marketplace. They had just returned from the CeBIT fair in Germany where they saw hundreds of thousands of delegates from around the world. Many attendees represented countries with an imminent need for the heavy-duty infrastructure products that their marketplace sold. On their way back to Silicon Valley, they decided that their website had to be global. There was just too much international opportunity for them to ignore.

I remember the meeting where they said that their ecommerce site had to be in dozens, maybe even a hundred languages within a year. One person disagreed—he said it should be in at least 150. His view was that it should be accessible to anyone on the planet responsible for municipal water systems and power plants. My first reaction was, “Yee-haw! Here’s somebody who really gets it.”

I scoped out the journey from their one-language U.S. website to one supporting not just 100 languages, but transactions in each of the countries where those languages were spoken. The enthusiasm in the room began to cool. What’s the problem? While English is spoken in a lot of countries, each constitutes a “locale”—the unique combination of language, currency, laws, and other attributes. Thus, English for the U.S., the U.K., and Australia would require extra work so that they could price products in the local currency, ship them, support them, and ensure legal compliance. We continued the discussion and developed a more subdued plan to take over the world of ecommerce.

While few companies today plan such rapid expansion, many have a desire to maximize their global marketing reach. Here’s several options for companies looking to deal with the challenge of so many languages and countries:

Forget about locales. This is a severe solution, but it limits the work to “just” the language part. By pricing everything in U.S. dollars and using credit card companies for payment, you avoid currency support and payment issues. For logistics, you can rely on experts such as DHL, FedEx and UPS to do the heavy lifting. It’s not ideal, but when money’s tight, you need to compromise somewhere. The next bit of advice is just as severe.

Focus only on the countries with the most viable economic prospects. Given the mismatch between the number of languages and the money to support them all, companies can cut back from dozens of languages to just 12 or 13. Our research at Common Sense Advisory shows that it takes 12 languages to effectively communicate with 80% of potential website visitors or 13 languages to reach the most economically active populations.

If you can, default to English. Large technical elites in many countries study English out of necessity or desire. This approach worked for the site discussed at the start of this article. Why? English was the primary language for scientific and business discussion of the things that site was selling. Professionals, executives or business partners may be better able to absorb English-language information than their consumer counterparts. Furthermore, some markets have a high percentage of speakers who are comfortable in English. However, in the long term, you should strive to make information available in the appropriate language in order to maximize consideration.

Look to global languages where they make sense. You may already support other languages that are spoken in multiple countries, such as Chinese, French, German, Russian and Spanish. These global languages meet the needs of a good percentage of the world’s population, especially those in developed countries and those with a good potential for developing. For example, Russian remains a viable business language in many of the former Soviet republics, and Spanish opens access to a host of developing markets in Central and South America.

Pick a single dialect for those global languages. Follow the lead of companies like Microsoft in picking a dialect of a given language. You could choose American English and Mexican Spanish as your preferred variants. People will get used to it because having needed content available often wins out over minor lexical differences. Over time, if a particular nation’s sales performance and customer feedback justify it, you could choose to support its dialect.

Try machine translation. If you don’t provide information in the language of your target markets, you’ll either lose prospects or they’ll use Google Translate to find their way around your site. You could beat them to it by engaging with a commercial machine translation supplier to adapt the technology to your company’s terminology and integrate automated translation into your website. To make it even better, you can monitor which content is most frequently accessed and have that machine-translated output edited by professional editors. And you can join the crowd—some companies use customers and prospects to validate and improve their machine-translated content.

What should cause you do to choose a different, more expensive path than these shortcuts? Watch out for competitors. Besides known global rivals, you should keep track of what up-and-coming competitors offer in other markets. The threat of new entrants and possible substitutes for your products should drive some market development.

Could you do more? Sure, with oodles of money, time, technology, and resources, you could get into the business of supporting all 6,000-plus languages on the planet. But that’s not realistic for any company. Focus on the lion’s share of the world’s market—those 12 languages that reach 80% of the world’s population.

Don DePalma is the founder and chief strategy officer of the research and consulting firm Common Sense Advisory, and author of “Business Without Borders: A Strategic Guide to Global Marketing.”

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