Language Translation: Focus on Local Ethnic Audiences, Says Expert

There are more consumers that don’t speak English than those that do. We wondered the best way for ecommerce merchants to reach those non-English-speaking prospects. Merely translating a website is only part of the challenge. To help us understand all of the issues surrounding language translation of an ecommerce site, we spoke with Swamy Viswanathan, vice president for Language Weaver, a translation company.

Practical eCommerce: Should smaller ecommerce merchants invest the time and money to translate their sites into other languages?

Swamy Viswanathan: “Yes, most certainly they should. There is a lot of online commerce and there are a lot of different merchants online. Consequently, making that content available in the language of the visitor is one way merchants can distinguish themselves from their competition. Our research shows that visitors to a site are much more likely to become buyers when content and the products and the communication are all presented in the language that is native to them.”

PEC: Is the main benefit of translating to make it more comfortable for the consumer, versus SEO benefits, for example?

Viswanathan: “It actually goes both ways. When the content is much more accessible to the consumer, it results in higher click-through rate or a higher purchase rate. So, it does benefit the retailer directly by making the content available in the native language of the visitor. From an SEO standpoint, there is significant benefit as well, because this content is now natively findable to search engines crawling the site, and people are able to do searches in their own language and gain access to this content.”

PEC: Should a merchant translate a site to another language without also translating the currency?

Viswanathan: “It’s really important for people to understand the difference between translation and localization. Currency is one of the factors that go into localization. So, for example, if a retailer decided to start his or her operations by addressing customers in China, then of course the merchant really does need to make sure that the prices are displayed in the local currency of China, but it doesn’t stop there. You do have to make sure that descriptions are such that they are easier for people in China to understand.

“For example, we may use our colloquialisms that may not actually translate properly into the local language because they are actually based on cultural nuances. It’s really all part of an overall localization strategy. I would suggest that for most merchants that are currently focused on an audience in North America, the easiest thing to do is to focus on translation to address ethnic audiences that actually exist within North America itself. So, issues on currency and culture do not have to be factored in because these same people live where we do and are exposed to the same culture that we are. It makes the job of translation much easier, and it also [allows] retailers to reach out to a much broader audience than they otherwise could have reached.”

PEC: Are there specific languages that you would recommend for a North American-based merchant to translate into?

Viswanathan: “Spanish is the most obvious. There is a very large immigrant community in the U.S. that has a lot of purchasing power. Also, French. There is the province of Quebec where French is mandatory, and having content accessible to the residents of Quebec in French would certainly improve a retailer’s chances of reaching folks there. Other immigrant communities that have a significant presence in North America include Chinese, Tagalog (the language spoken in the Philippines), and Vietnamese.”

PEC: Do you know whether the speakers of those languages are more or less web savvy or web literate than others?

Viswanathan: “I do not have very specific statistics, but Pew Internet Research statistics show that, whether the first generation is web savvy or not, all of their children are. So, there is no question that that’s an easy way to actually reach across the board.”

PEC: What parts of an ecommerce site can be machine-translated and what parts should be human-translated (assuming it costs more money for a human-translation than a machine translation)?

Viswanathan: “Any website has content that you can kind of loosely divide into two parts. There is content where the intent is to convey a nuance that is intended to influence human behavior — advertising copy is a great example — and really does need to be translated by a human. Another piece of content that should always be human-translated is anything that has legal implications.

“Parts of a site that are just intended to convey fact, such as a product review or a shipping address, can be automatically translated.”

PEC: Is there a rule of thumb for how much money merchants should spend to translate a site?

Viswanathan: “Typically, human translation is priced on a per-word basis. So, if you were to look at professional translators capable of conveying nuance and influencing behaviors, depending on the language, the price is going to vary between 10 cents and 25 cents a word. So, it’s not cheap. But on the other hand, if you focus it at those specific parts of the site where you can get sort of the most bang for the buck, like description of a product or advertising copy or the legal document, then that’s a very good use of money.

“There are other parts of the site, such as reviews, where the content may be created on a frequent basis–a large volume of content created at a pace that doesn’t lend itself to human translation–those are good candidates for automatic translation. Typically, those would probably cost around $10,000 to $20,000 per year for a medium-sized retailer.”

PEC: What else should the merchant consider when translating an ecommerce site into a foreign language?

Viswanathan: “Translation should always be viewed in the context of a retailer’s business strategy. The business strategy needs to come first. If the merchant decides to do business in a certain geography, what is his or her business plan for such an activity? It really has to cover everything from import/export licenses to whether the products that he or she is going to sell are actually out or not.

“For example, certain DVD players are restricted by region. Other products have electric voltage that is different from one place to another. And, there are products that the manufacturer says should not be sold outside a certain geography. There are import/export requirements between countries. There’s a whole bunch of paperwork in terms of legal and regulatory filings. So, translation and localization is only one small aspect of the overall retail strategy that needs to be thought through.”

PEC: Tell us a little bit about your company, Language Weaver, and what services you provide.

Viswanathan: “Language Weaver is based in Los Angeles and it was founded by two professors from University of Southern California. For years and years, automated translation was based on the principle of defining grammar, and that’s how it worked for a long time. Our founders invented the method called ‘statistical translation,’ whereby the system learned by reading other human translations. So, it doesn’t actually need to be taught the grammar of a language, it learns by observation. This forms the core of the products and services we offer.

“Language Weaver has a full suite of products that are widely used by many government agencies as well as many large commercial brands. The products are used in everything from intelligence applications to customer support across businesses and the enterprise.”

PEC: Anything else on your mind for our readers?

Viswanathan: “Our company’s CEO always says that no one really wants to translate, but everyone wants to communicate. If retailers keep this in mind, then ultimately you ask yourself, ‘What is it that you’re actually trying to communicate?’ If you would ask yourself that question, then you would be able to design the work plan on what you’re trying to achieve, and measure everything appropriately from that perspective.”

PEC Staff
PEC Staff
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