Mind the Language Gap: Localization vs Translation Online

My name doesn’t exist in Spanish. Jill would actually be pronounced Heeee – J’s make an H sound and LL makes a Y sound. Jill works just fine in the American Midwest, but when I moved to California for college I encountered a whole new world of Spanish-speaking folks who were genuinely confused by my ridiculous name.

On a far larger scale, the same issue exists across the internet as sites attempt to expand their reach from their native language to serve other countries in other languages. American English is very close to the Queen’s English, but American English just doesn’t speak to the British in the same way. It’s more than sprinkling in some U’s and swapping Z’s for S’s. In Wisconsin I’d stuff a package in the trunk, but in London they’d place a parcel in the boot. I watch my step, they mind the gap. And we’re not even going to talk about the double meaning of fanny packs, yikes.

Some sites translate their navigation and major headings only, but leave the featured image content or product detail information in the original language. I can’t think of a better way to illustrate that customers speaking that language are not a priority. Sears uses a translating technology that autoconverts English textual content to Spanish, but the featured content images are still in English. Message to the Spanish-speaking population: You don’t matter as much but we’d like you to give us your money.

Would you send your English-speaking founder to the streets of Paris to sell the widgets he’s passionate about and communicates magnificently well in English, armed only with a sheet of common French phrases and expect him to sell like gangbusters? Of course not. He won’t be able to communicate effectively there, no matter how passionately he believes in his widgets. Similarly, French customers are not going to drop $300 (or euros) on your site if your French content is poorly written and archaically constructed. You wouldn’t write your primary content woodenly, why on earth would you translate woodenly? It’s ineffective and even insulting. You can’t just slap a French flag on it and call it a day.

In some cases, the navigation is in the original language but some linguistically orphaned content exists deeper in the site. If you can’t read English, how could you navigate the English Virginia.gov site to find the Spanish translation of the preparation for college guide? Lovely that it’s offered, but how will the people who need it find it on the site?

Sites communicate most strongly in the languages of their creators, naturally. When attempts are made to create content for other languages, many sites make the mistake of purely translating the same words they use to the equivalent word in the other languages. Not so good unless you just really don’t want to make a connection with those readers / customers. In that case, save everyone the time and don‘t bother to translate in the first place.

I enjoy babelfish as much as the next gal, but it’s no way to localize content. Localization is about creating content specifically for a geographically defined audience in their preferred language. It’s about carrying your message to them as an important audience equally valuable to the one that speaks the core language of the site, not expecting them to piece together your message and thank you for the opportunity to enjoy your delightful site so clearly not targeted at them despite its translated status.

If you’re serious about expanding your reach to other languages and countries, take the time to hire or contract with someone native to that country fluent in the dialect required. Don’t ask him to translate the content you’ve already written, boil it down to a series of key message bullets and allow him to create the content from those key messages in a way that will resonate best.
For more on localization and SEO, Andy Atkins-Kruger is an excellent resource at Multilingual Search Blog or WebCertain.com.

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Originally posted on Web PieRat.