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Multilingual website a competitive requisite in global economy

The global economy is spurring companies to make Web sites in many languages. Translation is the name of the game. CIOs take note: IT will be called on to play.

It wasn't so long ago that companies were debating the value of building a website. What would be the payback? Today, most businesses recognize that a company's online presence is its face to the world. Forward-looking businesses are taking that literally, say experts, and hustling to make multilingual websites that speak to global customers in their native tongues.

"The view that it's OK to get by in English has changed, even between business-to-business companies. Companies are starting to use translation as a competitive edge," said John Yunker, co-founder of Byte Level Research LLC in San Diego and author of Beyond Borders: Web Globalization Strategies.

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"I call it the hidden revolution," he added, noting that in the past three years coffee shop powerhouse Starbucks Corp. has doubled its number of global websites. So has car maker BMW.

The revolution spurred by the global economy does not come cheap. To reach 80% of the world's Internet users, a website needs to support a minimum of 10 languages, according to Byte Level Research. They are: English, Chinese, Spanish, Japanese, German, Korean, French, Italian, Russian, and Portuguese.

At 20 cents and more a word, the bills add up, making translation services a hot-button issue come budget time, say experts, and yet another operation that CIOs will have to deal with as companies seek to automate the process of creating a multilingual website.

Companies supporting five to 10 languages can spend $100,000 to $200,000 annually to localize information and another $30,000 to $50,000 to maintain a multilingual website, Yunker said. Translation budgets for big multinationals can run in the millions of dollars.

"I don't know of any company today that has everything translated that they want to have translated. They're looking to do whatever they can to get the most out of their budget," said Yunker, whose firm issues an annual "Globalization Report Card" rating 300 global websites, from Apple to Yahoo. "There is so much knowledge base and not enough translators."

The automated solutions, at least the cheaper versions, have limitations. Translation memory, which consists of text strings of a source language and their translations in other languages, is good for a "first pass," Yunker said, and can help companies chop 25% to 40% off the cost of the "good" translation. Machine translation is more cutting edge, offering a range of quality from word-for-word translations to idiomatic text, and priced accordingly. The European Union and the U.S. Department of Defense have used machine translation from Systran S.A., a longtime industry player, to do high-quality, first-pass translations, Yunker said.

Word-for-word translations won't get companies very far with the global buying public. Witness Nike Inc., which gave up on translating its memorable "Just do it," slogan into different languages, Yunker said. Fortunately for the athletic footwear maker, the slogan was embraced -- in English -- by foreign customers, but iconic brands like Nike are few and far between.

Top 10 global websites
  1. Google
  2. Wikipedia
  3. Hewlett-Packard Co.
  4. Cisco Systems Inc.
  5. IBM
  6. Dell Inc.
  7. IKEA
  8. Volvo Cars
  9. DHL
  10. Xerox Corp
Source: Byte Level Research: The Web Globalization Report Card 2006
"Should people care about translation? Absolutely. Global trade is exploding," said Ron Rogowski, who now covers Web globalization at Cambridge, Mass.-based Forrester Research Inc. "Companies are looking outside their home markets to grow revenues and get to new customers and also to do things like improving cost efficiency, which comes from outsourcing. When you're disseminating information, the importance of getting it right is critical."

It is not enough for companies to translate Web content, Rogowski added. "You really need to localize and be sensitive to needs of the people in your local markets, which can be very different market by market," said Rogowski, who earned a bachelor's degrees in English and Japanese and worked for a time for Kyodo News markets. ("Just do it" in Japanese would be taken as an X-rated expression.)

Selling well to a local customer is an involved process, usually involving multiple translations and reviews, and even multiple vendors. A company doing business in China might choose not to use its translation vendor when it can get local students to do the work for half the price. And the best local Web sites tend to morph quickly from operating as repositories for translated content to creating their own content.

Where companies lose out is by not having standards for how the translation process is managed, Rogowski said. regardless of who the translation vendor is. "The thing that a CIO should consider is managing the process through a workflow management tool and making use of what is already done, that is making use of previously translated content," he said, so you are not paying a per-page price every time a bit of content is added.

Rogowski agreed that translation can confer a competitive advantage. Companies would do well to view localized websites as a corporate asset, not just a cost, he said. "Time to market is critical. That is a competitive edge. If you have a new product launch and the thing that is holding you back from launching it in a region is translating content on your Web site, that is a problem. Every day that the site is not live with that information is a day where you've got product sitting on the shelf."

Let us know what you think about the story; email: Linda Tucci, Senior News Writer

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