posted 18 Apr 2005 in Volume 8 Issue 7
Lost in translation: Breaching the language barrier
In an era of globalisation, international borders no longer represent a barrier to trade. Increasingly, organisations employ workers and target customers from all over the world. But the language barrier remains, and global organisations face a new challenge: presenting corporate information and communicating in a way that takes into account local sensibilities and linguistic requirements. By Jessica Twentyman
In February 2005, CILT (the National Centre for Languages) issued a stern warning to
A new CILT publication, Language and Culture in British Business, backs up the point with the results of a survey carried out in the second half of 2004. Almost half of British companies surveyed said they regularly experienced barriers to international trade, according to the book’s author, Stephen Hagen, but only 11 per cent have in place a strategy to deal with such difficulties. Over 20 per cent of the companies acknowledged that they had lost business in the past as a consequence of language and culture barriers – but twice that number anticipate trading with other countries in the future. These anomalies, says
But communicating with non-English speakers is not just an international issue. In the
Whether they are in the
That is particularly true for content that is disseminated to employees, suppliers, customers and distributors over the internet, whether through the corporate website or via intranets or extranets. The web provides a low-cost distribution mechanism for companies to provide information to users regardless of their location or time zone. In turn, it enables those users to interact with a company – to check inventory status, to file an invoice or to order products, for example – in a self-service way, without the need (in many cases) to rely on customer-service assistance.
Take, for example, Imperial Tobacco: the extranet it uses to enable retailers and distributors to place orders with the company is available in Gujurati and Urdu, as well as English, to cater for the needs of a large number of
That thinking is inspiring – but when translation for localisation purposes is introduced, the costs of web self-service soon mount. “Localising content is a challenge that most companies tackle only if they really need to, because of the costs associated with it,” says Steward Manley, chief technical officer at web-content-management company Mediasurface.
Indeed, according to Carrie Johnson, an analyst with Forrester Research, it is the most expensive aspect of web localisation. “Translation can run from $0.08 per Korean word to $0.14 per German word,” she says. “To minimise costs, [organisations] should hire translators and copywriters who have in-depth domain experience, knowledge of translation workflow processes and software, and the ability to capture the right semantic feel for target audiences.”
That is a tall order – but companies like Bowne Global Solutions (BGS) and SDL International claim they can take much of the grunt work out of translation. BGS has worked with the likes of Microsoft and Adobe to localise, for example, information about new product releases. Highly complex and potentially costly projects in both instances were completed quickly and at a relatively low cost. “We decided to use BGS because it has put in place a worldwide structure capable of handling a project of such size and complexity, and of delivering the technical quality our customers around the world require,” said Fabrice Fonck, director of international development at Microsoft.
Similarly, SDL’s Knowledge-based Translation System, released in early 2004, is designed to make translating content into different languages faster and cheaper. The system analyses documents for idiosyncratic words, phrases and acronyms. It is then ‘taught’ how to treat these words, before the text is fed into the automated-translation engine, and human translators review the result. Corrections are remembered, to make sure the same mistake is not repeated, and the whole process is integrated into the company’s own document-management system. SDL executives claim that the technology can increase output per translator from between 2,000 and 3,000 words per day, to between 6,000 and 7,000.
Rather than invest in such tools, however, many smaller companies still prefer to use a translation agency. That is fine, but there is a plethora of such agencies to be found – and of wildly varying quality.
“Relating global messages to local audiences is a rare gift. Ideal translators have in-depth domain experience, knowledge of translation workflow processes and software, and the ability to capture the right semantic feel for target audiences. These skilled professionals can often be inaccessible through translation companies,” says Forrester analyst Ron Rogowski.
Organisations should therefore be looking for a number of skills. First, translators need to understand the behaviour of target audiences. Second, prospective clients should insist they use translation-management workflow tools to avoid bottlenecks and confusion in translation, approval and confirmation processes. Third, clients should have a local domain expert from their own company review the copy prior to publishing, either externally or internally.
Whatever method is used to get content translated, however, companies looking to reach globally dispersed and linguistically distinct employees, and target wider, non-English speaking markets still face a major challenge: to present information to audiences in a way that reflects a consistent corporate message and brand, but one that is tailored for local sensibilities and requirements.
That can be complicated. For example, German words are frequently longer than their equivalents in English, resulting in content that is typically 30 per cent longer in translation. An effective multi-language intranet or website needs to take such issues into account.
But companies should not even think about localisation until they have rock-solid content-management policies and technologies in place that help them manage and update information efficiently, says Bill Rogers, chief executive of web-content-management company Ektron. “It’s totally a prerequisite. Until your business has thought its way around the issues of managing a single-language site, there’s no chance you can manage a multiple-language version – that would be crazy. How are you going to identify what needs translating if you don’t know what content you have in English?” he says.
Underpinning a consistent look and feel, and good content-management practices, then, is a rock-solid web-content-management system (WCMS). Having a WCMS located centrally makes site management far easier and can result in quick payback, even if the only savings initially are from the reduced cost of hosting what were once multiple, regional sites on a single, centralised platform.
But it also offers a number of other advantages. Typically, a WCMS will use a template-based approach to serving content, so that designers can develop a standard look for a site into which content – in any language – is inserted for each page. By developing templates that are appropriate for international audiences as well as domestic ones, the same content can be re-used where appropriate without having to be rewritten.
A WCMS can also ensure branding remains consistent across international sites by providing a central repository of images that can be used and a permissioning system that imposes rules governing what images can be changed or uploaded. In addition, a WCMS’s workflow system can move content between users for writing, editing, translating and eventual approval, so that content is only published if it meets the organisation’s policies on branding and so on. And ‘blueprinting’, ‘cloning’ and other similar WCMS technologies provide easy ways to create new sites by copying existing ones and then changing particular settings.
Last, and most important for some organisations, web-page authoring no longer needs to be done by webmasters or IT departments, but can be performed by any authorised business user with simple tools such as a web browser or Microsoft Word, thus freeing up bottlenecks and reducing the need for large numbers of highly trained staff. This means that, while a multinational organisation’s site may sit on a London-based server, employees in
Not only that, but WCMS suppliers frequently partner with suppliers of machine-translation and translation-workflow tools, in order to offer customers a more comprehensive bundle of products for tackling the localisation issue. Mediasurface, for example, partners with GlobalSight, while Ektron integrates with WorldLingo.
These kinds of alliances, they say, are becoming increasingly important to their customers as they begin to explore localisation. “Users in many areas of the world are very tolerant of English-only information and recognise that English is the international language of business. However, they do appreciate the ability to read that information in their own tongue,” says Manley.
Trinity College London is an international examinations board that awards qualifications in music, speech and drama and language in almost every country in the world through a network of around 7,000 examination centres.
Its intranet, Trinity Online, connects that far-flung network, enabling authorised administrators at registered centres to enroll candidates for exams and to view, analyse and print out results for quality assurance and reporting.
This involves 20 different languages and a considerable localisation effort, says Elaine Miller, systems administrator at Trinity Online. The organisation has tackled that challenge with the help of web-design company Sense Internet, which built it a content-management system, embedding an underlying translation layer into the code. Any word or phrase tagged in the markup is interpreted by the system for translation.
Alongside this, Sense built a database of translations, updated using a simple HTML screen accessible by Trinity administrators. This allows them to amend or extend translations to keep them accurate and up to date without having to refer back to Sense.
In addition, the content-management system ‘learns’ the words it has encountered previously and stores them, so that it can refer back to them in future and take the translation directly from the cache.
“In this way, we have a system that can be used anywhere in the world but which is based in