Cross-border Selling

Ecommerce Know-How: Translate Your Ecommerce Site

Language translation is an increasingly important part of ecommerce marketing, as many small- to mid-size businesses seek non-English-speaking customers.

But translating a product detail page into Spanish, French, Czech, or Chinese is, frankly, not as simple as hopping over to Google, Bing, or Yahoo! and using their machine translation services. Rather, there are several important steps that site owners should consider to achieve accurate and communicative translations.

Rewrite for Translation

Written language can be beautiful, as in poetry; heroic, as in epics; informative, as in textbooks; and descriptive, as on product detail pages. Good written language is often decorated with idioms, analogies, similes, and metaphors. It appeals to human emotion and human senses. Good written language takes advantage of cultural memory and popular knowledge. But good written language can be extremely hard to translate.

For example, in English we use the idiom “don’t judge a book by its cover” to say that things are not always what they seem, or that sometimes what is inside of a thing is greater than what is on its surface. But, literally translating this phrase into another language will not necessarily convey the intended meaning. Rather, we need to translate this idiom so that the intended meaning is communicated, not the actual English words.

Specifically, if we wanted to translate this idiom into French, it would be far better to say, l’habit na fait pas le moine, (the clothes don’t make the monk) than ne juge pas un livre par sa couverture, which is the literal translation. The French idiom, l’habit na fait pas le moine has the equivalent meaning to the English idiom, even though the actual words are nothing alike. Making this sort of dynamic equivalent requires an excellent understanding of both languages, and is really more than we can hope for in most commercial translations, so we must rewrite before we translate.

The goal is to take your good written English and turn it into bland written English. Really, everything I said about idioms, analogies, and metaphors is true for well-written website content, but we don’t need well-written content; we need easy-to-read, easy-to-translate content that is written for the lowest level of reader. Let’s take a look at a descriptive example:

Like they say, you can’t judge a book by its cover. This humble looking pocket knife has every feature short of the kitchen sink, including two cutting blades, a corkscrew, a can opener, and a global positioning system.

This product description (which I realize is not necessarily an example of a well-written paragraph) includes an idiom, a metaphor, and other figures of speech that would be hard to translate. Now, we rewrite it:

This folding knife has two cutting blades, a corkscrew, a can opener, and a global positioning system.

Having removed the idiom, the metaphor, and the term “pocket” which may not make sense in other languages, we have a matter-of-fact sentence that is ready to translate. Don’t get too hung up on this specific example; just understand that we need to write a less complex form of the description, which in many cases will not be as good as the original.

Reduce Phrases and Rewrite Again

Now that we have rewritten every section of our website, we need to compare each page, looking for phrases that have similar meanings. This step is a huge money saver for us and will set us up to use an advanced translation technique called translation memory.

Our goal is to say the same things the same way. To continue with the pocketknife example, if we find that in our rewritten copy we’ve used the phrases, “folding knife,” “knife that folds,” and “knife which you can fold,” we want to rewrite these into a single, simple, and short phrase. In this example, we would probably choose “folding knife.” So, every time that we want to communicate the idea of a pocketknife, we are going to use the phrase “folding knife.”

Another example might be sale items. Let’s imagine that in our rewritten copy we have the phrases, “on sale,” “discounted price,” “new lower price,” “special price,” “special offer,” and “huge savings.” We would want to convert all of these similar phrases into a single phrase, for example, “sale price.”

Create the Translation Document

Having rewritten and rephrased our copy, we need to produce a translation document. Just providing a translator with every page of our site in rewritten form can be expensive and wasteful. Rather, we need to produce a document that includes everything we need translated, but only includes a phrase once.

We might have written “sale price” 400 times on our website, but we only want to translate it once. We might have the phrase “high quality” on our site 1,000 times, but we only want to translate it once. You get the idea. This translation document boils down the total number of words we will translate to the absolute minimum that context requires.

Hire A Professional Translator

Machine translators will not do. You must hire a reputable and professional translator with particular expertise in the languages you will be using and the industry you serve, particularly if your products are in a niche that includes a lot of jargon. You want to make sure that your translator understands both the language and the concepts.

Professional translation will cost between 35 cents per word and $1.50 per word depending on the language and topical complexity. This means that if you have done a good job of preparing a translation document, you may be able to professionally translate the your entire ecommerce site into another language for about $500.

Check the Translation for Errors

Your translator should provide you will a two-column document that has the English-language phrase on the left and the newly translated phrase on the right. You need to check this translation carefully. The best possible scenario would be to have a native speaker review the translation, but this is often not an option.

At the very least, go to Bing or Google and use their machine translation tools to check the translation for obvious errors. If you have selected a good professional translation service, you should see very few (or no) errors.

Hire A Professional Writer

You now have a translated website, which will be serviceable. But remember, we rewrote our original copy to be very basic and simple. While we can use this translated copy, it would be better if we could add back in the figures of speech that can improve the written word.

Consider hiring a professional writer who specializes in your target language. For example, if you have just translated your ecommerce store into Spanish, hire a professional Spanish-language copywriter, provide him with the translation, and ask him to make it more descriptive. It is important that you still limit this rewrite to the material in the translation document.

You should then check the phrasing again to be sure it is accurate. A machine translator will work fine for this task. Now you have copy that is ready for prime time.

Consider Translation Memory

But, what happens when you add new products, create new sections, or change your seasonal sales? Will you have to go through the entire process again? Maybe not. Sites that are committed to serving customers in several languages often use a technique called translation memory.

In its most common form, translation memory is a software feature that helps site owners keep track of which phrases they have already translated. When they have new material to be translated they compare that new material to their archive of translated phrases. Often, with a little rewriting, they can create new sections, new product descriptions, and new documents without any additional translation.

If you are committed to site translation, consider investing in translation memory tools, or at the very least keep a spreadsheet of the phrases you have translated and drawn from that work as you develop new sections or promotions.

Establish a Translation Procedure for New Content

Finally, before you translate your first word, know how your business will handle future translations. If you take my advice and invest in translation memory, do it from the beginning. Have a plan to regularly review translated material. And, plan ahead for promotions, email campaigns, and even AdWords copy.

Summing Up

Translating your online store into other languages can greatly increase the size of your market, both domestically and internationally. But, be careful to do your translating well. Poorly translated phrases can turn your brand into a joke and hurt your business, not help it.

Armando Roggio
Armando Roggio
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