English to You; Greek to Them: the Importance of Internationalization

Cardinal Giuseppe Mezzofanti (1774-1849) was possibly the most multilingual person in history. The remarkable cardinal, once the head of the Vatican library, reportedly could speak some 50 languages fluently.

The United Parcel Service (UPS) of America isn’t close to challenging Mezzofanti’s impressive record, but the Atlanta-based company is working on it. UPS, which delivers more than 13 million packages daily in more than 200 countries, operates localized websites that support 19 variations of 12 languages.

UPS realized more than four years ago that people tend to be most comfortable viewing websites that use their own language. "Local language support is a courtesy that increases trust in your company while encouraging repeated and longer site visits," says Rakesh Sapra, UPS’s director of interactive marketing.

The company isn’t alone in realizing that the Internet requires global language support. Thirty-seven percent of websites operated by Fortune 100 companies incorporate a language other than English, according to Cambridge, Mass.-based Forrester Research. Yet, surprisingly, that figure hasn’t budged much since 1998, when 32 percent of the companies Forrester surveyed offered multilingual sites.

Why the stall? Forrester, like other observers, blames the lack of progress on a combination of management, technical and cultural difficulties. According to Marc Liggio, vice president of Allied Business Intelligence, a technology research company in Oyster Bay, N.Y., these problems aren’t likely to disappear anytime soon. "In the meantime, companies will have to work hard to ensure a successful multilingual effort," he says.

Easier Said Than Read

For UPS, assembling a multilingual website has been an incremental process. The company launched its first, English-only site in 1995 and added European languages the following year. Additional languages arrived in stages during the next few years. This past fall, the company also added several Asian languages.

Site management has been the biggest woe for UPS’s multilingual initiative. "Lots of planning is necessary to make a multilingual site successful, everything from deciding who creates the content to what software to use to how the site will look," says Sapra. Like many companies with multilingual websites, UPS relies on local personnel to provide content that’s tailored to the needs of regional customers and business partners. "The people located in the country itself are the ones most able to deliver the quality we need," he says.

While ceding control of site content and design to local offices helps to ensure a competent reflection of indigenous business practices and personal customs, the approach is not without peril. Companies can find themselves losing control of their international Web presence as language barriers prevent central office managers from effectively monitoring local sites. Yet without local involvement, a company’s multilingual efforts will likely fail, since central office workers typically lack the in-depth knowledge that makes a local site an authentic and useful experience.

Novell, which supports local websites spanning more than 20 languages, is attempting to position itself squarely in the middle of the central versus local debate. The company has created a cooperative Web development atmosphere among Web managers at its San Jose, Calif., headquarters and its various local offices. At the heart of its strategy is a standard Web template that incorporates recommended content for each site, regardless of language. "The idea is to make content a shared decision between Novell and the in-country resources," says David Butcher, Novell’s global website director. "We know that some press releases, for example, aren’t applicable to all countries and therefore don’t need to be translated and posted on every site."

More Problems

Software issues have emerged as another major stumbling block in the development of multilingual websites. While many programs have no problem supporting English and other Western European languages, few products will accommodate English, Cyrillic, Arabic and Hebrew characters. Multilingual development tools that accommodate both English and Asian languages, which can contain up to 6,000 characters, are particularly scarce.

Several vendors aim to help businesses that are tackling site globalization and language translation. Idiom Technologies in Waltham, Mass., and GlobalSight in San Jose, Calif., both offer globalization services and consulting. Idiom’s WorldServer product can synchronize international webpages and help translators and editors convert or adapt Web resources for local sites. Montreal’s Alis Technologies offers globalization services and software for more than 90 languages. And Salt Lake City-based Alpnet has positioned itself as a specialist in cultural issues and multilingual content management. Lotus Development Corp. in Cambridge, Mass., meanwhile, provides Domino Global Workbench, a toolkit for developers creating multiligual Web applications.

Language and cultural differences also complicate the creation of multilingual websites. Different colors, icons and gestures have different meanings in various cultures while a pointed index finger to most Americans and Europeans means "look here," in some other cultures, however, the signal signifies "up yours." "You can get into trouble just by simply translating an English site into another language," says UPS’s Sapra. "You have to look at the whole picture, including the site’s context, layout and graphics."

Dialects can also make operating a multilingual site a tricky proposition. To cope with various dialects, eHealth Latin America has developed its own generic language. "After a bit of heated discussion, we decided to standardize a version of Spanish and instructed our writers to steer clear of colloquialisms," says Laura Gill, COO of Silver Springs, Md.-based medical information content provider eHealth, which serves users from Mexico to the tip of South America. "So far, it’s worked very well."

Companies with offices spread around the globe can usually rely on their own workers to translate English documents into local languages. But organizations with no overseas branches typically outsource some or all of their translation work. Yet outsourcing is hardly a panacea, since translation services tend to be expensive, quality-challenged operations that can take a long time to deliver text. In fact, eHealth Latin America had so many problems with translation services that it ended up hiring its own team. "We felt this was the only way we could be assured of quality translations," says Gill. "It costs us more than using a service, but it also saves us money in the long run because quality content improves user satisfaction and loyalty."

Diving into the Language Pool

Although the need for multilingual websites is rapidly growing, multiple language support still isn’t a requirement for every company. For small and midsize organizations that limit their business activities to a circle of English-speaking customers and business partners, multilingual support is probably more trouble that it’s worth. But such companies are dwindling in number. "If you do business in one or more non-English-speaking countries, or even with the growing number of ethnic groups in North America, you’ll want to want to make sure that your customers can understand what you’re trying to tell them," says Ryan Hamlin, chief technical officer of CarPoint, Microsoft’s Web-based car shopping service. The Redmond, Wash.-based venture offers a bilingual French-English website for Canadian users.

Creating a detailed strategy is the key to launching and operating a successful multilingual site. But it’s also important to stay flexible, says eHealth’s Gill. "Having a plan is important, but you also have to be able to work within the plan in order to make changes when necessary," she says.

While multilingual Web support is becoming more critical, the functionality comes with a hefty price tag. "For a website with five or six languages, you are probably looking at an additional 20 percent outlay above the initial cost of a similar one-language site," says Jaap van der Meer, Alpnet’s president and CEO. But the 20 percent figure applies only to brand-new sites. To add multiple language capabilities to an existing site, you can expect to pay up to 50 percent of the original site’s cost, he says. "That’s because you have to spend time fitting the new languages into an established environment." In either case, a multiple language website costs about 10 percent more to maintain than a one-language site, van der Meer estimates.

Costs aside, as the Web becomes increasingly global, more businesses will find themselves needing to embrace languages other than English. "If nothing else, a multilingual Internet presence reinforces the fact that you’re a global company," says Butcher.


Copyright © 2001 IDG Communications, Inc.

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