Lost in Translation

Localizing a corporate Web site can be a tricky, time-consuming affair. This may explain why few companies have attempted it.
Adam LincolnApril 15, 2001

It’s every CFO’s nightmare: an expensive global marketing push that’s doomed before it starts. And it’s a lesson that executives at Panasonic (, the consumer products division of Japanese conglomerate Matsushita Electric, learned the hard way.

In 1996, Panasonic licensed the cartoon character Woody Woodpecker to serve as a user guide on the company’s new Japanese-language Web site. After devising a huge marketing campaign to trumpet the site — one focused on the famous bird — Panasonic’s management scheduled a big rollout. But just a week before the launch of the marketing blitz, an American staffer alerted his Japanese colleagues that the advertising slogan might need a bit of revising for English-speaking markets. The slogan? “Touch Woody — The Internet Pecker.”

Hardly a mortal blow to a company the size of Panasonic. Still, it’s exactly the kind of cultural ignorance that can cost companies customers. There seems to be a lot of that in cyberspace these days. Linguists report that just 6 percent of the planet’s inhabitants speak English as a first language. But that number doesn’t seem to matter much to most Web-site operators. According to eMarketer, at the end of 1999, 96 percent of all ecommerce sites were written in English.

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For managers who have assumed their Anglophone Web sites would deliver global riches, the news is not good. According to Forrester Research, eyeball time is doubled on sites localized for language and culture. Japanese businessmen, for example, are three times more likely to conduct an online transaction when addressed in Japanese. Indeed, consultancy Global Reach reports that for every $2 million a US site generates from domestic sales, another $1 million is lost when the Web site is not easily understood by foreigners.

The virtual reality is that the days of English as the default language of cyberspace are numbered. By 2003, the majority of Web content will be in a language other than English — mainly, Chinese. To maximize global revenues — and, thus, grow earnings — ecommerce companies must address target markets in the local language and with localized content. Says Forrester’s Eric Schmitt: “When offered in multiple languages, customer- service features like product data sheets and FAQs provide differentiation, build brand loyalty, and cut support costs.”

Lip Service

Tailoring products for different markets is not exactly new. The IT industry grew up translating software programs, training manuals, and the like. “When I started in this business,” recalls Philippe De-Sainte-Maresville, a worldwide localization manager for Hewlett-Packard (, in Grenoble, France, “computer keyboards didn’t even support the special characters used in the French language.”

Still, De-Sainte-Maresville concedes that localization jobs of the past pale in comparison to the localization demands brought by the Web. He says that before the World Wide Web, global projects tended to have set time frames, and needed few updates. In contrast, online localization will always be a work in progress. One thing, he says, doesn’t change. “Localization should be part of the product generation process – – not an afterthought.”

For a lot of companies, however, it appears Web-site localization is more lip service than customer service. According to a Jupiter Communications WebTrack survey of 114 US Web sites, two-thirds of the site operators had made only a minimal (if any) attempt to adapt for other markets. Most corporates still fall into two camps: Many are globally aware but Internet-naive; the rest are Internet-savvy but globally naive.

This will change. To help generate cross-border revenues, some online operators are turning to a new breed of consultant: localization outsourcers. Some, like Silicon Valley-based Interwoven Inc. (, are new to localization — they’re actually technology companies. Others, such as Berlitz GlobalNET (, are subsidiaries or spin-offs of old-style translation houses that have gotten into the ecommerce game. Most use a combination of human translators and machine translation technologies to translate and edit text in a culturally sensitive way.

Of course, localization is not just about words. “Translation is a small part of what we do, just one step,” insists Ethan Ding, director of operations (China and Korea) for US-based Lionbridge Technologies (

Localization specialists claim they can help clients protect their brands by providing control over marketing on a global basis. The concept: Centralize the message, translate it, and colloquialize it. Outsourcers also examine design concerns, such as the cultural implications of color. In many parts of Asia, for example, white is the kiss of death.

Further, localization experts can point out legal and regulatory snares. In France, for instance, consumers enjoy a one-week grace period after they receive an online purchase. In Germany, comparative advertising is banned. Ding, who is based in Beijing, says clients are often unnerved when they find out encrypted Web sites are regulated by the Chinese government.

The Village Idiom

Such advice may be invaluable, but it’s not exactly revolutionary. Big Five consultants, systems integrators, and market research firms have been dispensing this kind of wisdom — for a fee — for decades. The real selling point for localization outsourcers is their ability to solve traditional business problems — sales tax, customer relations, and the like — in a virtual, dynamic environment.

Boosted by industry efforts ensuring that Web programming languages work together sans frontières, their software products go beyond Web-based translating to knowledge management. Platforms marketed by GlobalSight ( and others aim to be all-in-one solutions for multilingual ebusiness. Several products perform more-specific tasks. BerlitzIT eFlow (from Berlitz GlobalNET) manages the workflow process for translation and localization projects — an aid in automating globalization projects.

The advent of these Web-site specialists means there’s lots of choice for corporate managers looking to localize their ebusinesses. Hong Kong-based (, an emarketplace for trading ferrous and nonferrous metals, relies on localization software, but not on a localization outsourcer. The company uses a program from content management specialist BroadVision ( The multilingual application enables users to complete transactions online, and generates real-time updates of trading and market news in up to six languages. Personalization tools allow to tailor services to the individual needs of metal traders. has been launched in English, Chinese, and German, with Russian and Japanese on the way. The BroadVision system, while a time- saver, must still be supplemented by human translators. Rather than outsource to a translation agency, managers at decided to keep the talent in-house. Three translators are employed in Hong Kong and five in China.

John Sun,’s financial controller, says he gets better value this way. “Translation-company professionals don’t understand the metal and steel industry as well,” he explains. “Our translators sit next to people with industry expertise. It makes for more-accurate translation, which ultimately saves costs.”

At New York-based ScreamingMedia (, a provider of content infrastructure, syndication, and services, managers tackled localization by turning to outsourcer eTranslate ( “eTranslate consulted with us on issues of language and culture,” says David Obstler, CFO at ScreamingMedia. “They assessed our site for localization red flags.”

As with most localization projects, there was plenty of ground to cover. eTranslate looked at linguistic issues, particularly regional slang, buzzwords, and other hard-to-translate idioms. Consultants also went over back-end issues, including the implications of translation on the database, concatenating text strings, and text embedded in code.

ScreamingMedia staffers identified Web-site files that needed translation, as well as annotations that might help with the localization. eTranslate then isolated translatable text and worked with the client to create a glossary to guide translators through pitfalls like proprietary terms and product names. Finally, eTranslate sent a functioning version of the site to ScreamingMedia for review.

So far, ScreamingMedia’s site has been translated into German, French, Spanish for Latin America, Portuguese for Brazil, and British English for the UK.


That may surprise some. Conventional wisdom among US corporates seems to be: Hey, English is English.

Don’t tell that to Tanya Field. Last March, Field was appointed director of new media for Discovery Networks Europe ( A subsidiary of the global media company Discovery Communications Inc., London-based Discovery Networks Europe delivers nine channels across 49 territories in Europe, Africa, and the Middle East.

Field was hired to help the company meet growing demand for value-added services that support its cable programming. This entailed hiring US vendor Immersant (now part of Bowne Global Solutions; to create Web sites in five European languages. Discovery’s London staff tackled the UK market. To her surprise, Field soon found out that economies of scale in a uniform language environment don’t exist. “It’s impossible for us to successfully port anything written for the US market to the UK without a total re-edit job,” she insists.

This, Field says, goes beyond spelling words with “ise” instead of “ize.” Anything written about World War II, for instance, can be a minefield. “Countries have different perspectives on who won the war [for the Allies],” Field notes. “It’s a subject that needs to be treated with kid gloves.”

So, too, is accounting for localization projects. “We’ve discovered that there’s no entry in any cost side of a budget that reads ‘localization,’ ” explains Alison Rowles, business manager of the Localisation Industry Standards Association (, a Switzerland-based lobby group. In the IT industry, she points out, localization departments are often associated with R&D. But, she adds, a lot of corporate executives see it as a communication or marketing cost. Some CFOs just see it as a sinkhole. “Oftentimes there’s no one place to capture the information,” Rowles says. “So it’s hard for the CFO to say, ‘We are getting the return on our investment.’ “

Assumptions can prove costly. Just ask managers at Panasonic.

Adam Lincoln, executive editor at CFO Asia, contributes regularly to eCFO.

The Goulash Archipelago

In the bad old days of the Iron Curtain, workers in Hungary’s IT industry imitated Russian code, pirated software from the West, and toiled to translate technical manuals. Even securing a phone line called for the patience of a saint. Tamas Nikolits, technical director of Budapest-based GamaxNet, a network equipment reseller, remembers: “Not long ago, you had to wait 10 years for a phone line.”

Things have changed. “Now they ask, ‘How many lines?’ ” says Nikolits. The vastly improved, privatized phone service has ramped up Internet use. According to Carnation Internet Consulting, an ebusiness advisory firm, about 1 in 10 Hungarians uses the Net regularly. Carnation expects B2C ecommerce turnover (not counting financial services) to double by 2002, with B2B revenue growing at 75 percent annually.

Still, ecommerce companies are hardly rushing to launch Hungarian versions of their corporate Web sites. For one thing, there are only 10 million inhabitants in the entire country. Traffic jams in Manila have more people.

Beyond that, the Hungarian language presents localization experts with serious obstacles. The language is derived from the Altaistic peoples of Inner Asia, whose linguistic legacy can still be seen in a few countries stretching across Europe and Asia (this connection explains why Hungarian is related to both Finnish and Japanese). The Magyars’ language has also been colored by generations of occupation by foreign overlords, including Attila the Hun (hence, Hungarian).

Given this peculiar lineage, it’s no surprise that Hungary poses a real challenge to hundreds of millions of Teutonic- and Romance-language speakers on the Continent. Even native speakers admit that Hungarian is a tough nut to crack. Says Peter Surjan, localization manager at Gamax ( (which owns a share in GamaxNet), a translation and localization services company in Budapest: “Sometimes, it’s easier to read a document in English than a bad Hungarian translation.”

Eric Forssberg knows all about it. The CEO at (, a Gothenburg, Sweden-based emarketplace for transportation and logistics, Forssberg headed the recent launch of a Hungarian-language version of the company’s Web site. All told, has been translated into eight languages for 25 markets, and can be accessed by users globally.

But why Hungarian, ahead of, say, French? Even neighboring Poland has some 40 million people. Forssberg points out that the business model relies on partnerships with local corporates that know the lay of the land. He says that when he was introduced to executives at CeWeb (, a well-connected company in Budapest, he decided to proceed.

Even then, the project involved a steep learning curve. “We had to get deeply involved in the industry,” says Gyorgy Kemeny, CeWeb’s project manager for Mostly, that involvement meant understanding how best to handle payments and regulations. But Kemeny says some localization issues were more fundamental. “We had to understand the mindset of the people who will use the system,” he explains. “How do we convince them to use the system and not fax or call each other?”

It took three weeks to complete the initial translation work. While CeWeb runs the business in Hungary, oversees control of the (outsourced) system servers in Sweden. Kemeny admits it’s an unusual way to conduct a translation project, but says it has an important benefit: The system can easily translate basic site information — even requests posted by a member — in every language, simultaneously.

This year, Forssberg has his eyes set on two much larger markets, China and Japan. In fact, the Chinese-language version is already out; the Japanese edition is slated to go live this spring. Although this means a leap into the “double-byte” world of Asian character sets, Forssberg thinks the localization efforts in the region will be worth the trouble. “Once we launch a Web site in the local language in a country where we also have a partner, site activity increases a lot.” Forssberg notes. “In certain markets, it’s the only way to succeed.” — AL

CFO: The Highest Patsy?

Generally speaking, relying on free Web software to translate important corporate material is a really bad idea. For proof, check out the following freeware translation of a recent announcement flogging a seminar for finance executives in Japan. The pitch, written in Japanese, was published on the sponsor’s Web site. The translation software used is a no-charge program that’s available on the Internet.

“Now, the CFO (the highest financial affairs patsy) is greatly expected very at small-to- medium sized venture enterprise. But, demand from enterprise it is insufficient contrarily very. Presently in Europe and America, investment appraisal is has reached extent and the important role which are done not only the CEO vis-a-vis the management team which includes the CFO from as for VC … As for this lecture, the people who would like you to do the skill rise in the midst of holding office, the people who would like to utilize the employment change of occupation, we have become the practical program which in each can compensate for experience insufficiency. …”

Where do we go to sign up? — John Goff

Get Your Adverbs Here

While off-the-rack translation software still leaves a lot to be desired, proprietary programs are getting better. Typically, applications employ complex semantic rules to perform syntactical and grammatical analyses on text. Such programs identify nouns, verbs, adverbs, and adjectives within a sentence, then access a database or dictionary for the correct translations. Finally, the software rearranges the parts of speech into the correct sequence.

By contrast, translation memory software — mostly an aid to human translators — delves into a database for perfect matches in previously translated sentences. The technology is less flexible, since results are affected by such minutiae as spaces between words. But recent developments in “fuzzy matching” allow some translation memory systems to recognize similar, not just identical, matches.

Currently, there are tons of browser-enabled translation programs on the market. One of the more popular is operated by Paris-based Systran ( Initially, Systran designed information translation and retrieval software used primarily by the FBI, CIA, and European Commission. But in 1997, Systran CEO Dimitrios Sabatakakis got AltaVista to incorporate Systran’s translation engine into its Net search portal. Now Systran’s technology is linked to more than 300,000 Web sites, from small dotcoms to Fortune 500 companies.

Essentially, Systran functions on an ASP model. Fees depend on the scale of customization and the number of users. “The big advantage of machine translation,” claims Sabatakakis, “is that you constantly add terms to the dictionary, so you build a resource for the company — one that can’t quit its job if it wanted to.”

Brussels-based Jonathan Sage and Dominic Kelleher, PricewaterhouseCoopers’ (www.pwcgloba directors of knowledge management for Europe, the Middle East, and Africa, are proponents of the technology — to a point. Two years ago, Sage says, business leaders at the consultancy created a Language Action Committee because half the company’s workers are not native English speakers. Moreover, Sage says, the Internet is creating a new demand for speedy multilingual communication.

After analyzing machine translation programs, the committee settled on software from Systran. In December, after six months of integration and customization, the Systran translation facility was added to the consultancy’s corporate intranet. Sage says PwC’s professional internal translators use translation memory software from vendor Trados (, as well.

Now that PwC employees have their own translation home page, managing user expectations is key, notes Sage. Toward that, PwC has included a “health warning” on its Web translation page, advising staff about appropriate usage. Workers are encouraged to use the technology when they want to get the gist of a document’s meaning — say, tax guidelines published in a local language. No-go zones? “Any translated communication or document that’s headed for clients should always pass through human translators,” Sage says. “The same for key internal communications. Otherwise, it could get farcical.” — AL