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By the year 2005, 75% of the online market will live outside the US and only one third of Internet users will be native speakers of English. Currently about 85% of Internet content is presented in English. US companies seem particularly unaware of these changing demographics, as more than half of their sites are not customized for foreign markets. According to a survey conducted by IDC, an Internet research firm, there is a clear indication that most Internet users have a preference for content in their own language, even if they use English as a second language. In Japan, for example, 84% of the people surveyed indicated they prefer to deal in their own language, while in Germany this represented 75% of the people surveyed.
Whether you have an e-commerce site or purely an informational site, it is important to identify the country of origin, preferably on the home page. If your business is purely local it should be indicated. However, if your business wants to target foreign markets, your website should speak to each segment in the appropriate language and culture. Here are some guidelines that can help you develop an international website.
Translating your site into a multilingual tool can be a daunting proposition. In some cases, especially if the site is not concerned with e-commerce, it may be sufficient to translate only essential information such as your home page and marketing content. There are several factors to keep in mind, such as the upkeep and maintenance of a multilingual site, as well as e-mail capabilities. This is an ongoing process where one has to consider such difficulties as ensuring any changes to content are covered in all the specified languages, and how to read and answer e-mail requests.
We also need to take into account that once the English text is translated it is usually longer in other European languages, but shorter in Asian languages. The Roman alphabet takes up less space than, say, Arabic or Cyrillic, which means your website’s layout will consequently be affected. In addition, regional differences in language should not be ignored. If you are targeting the UK then American English is inappropriate, Spanish in Mexico is different from Spanish in Spain, French differs between Belgium and Canada, etc. This is not to say that your American site will not be understood in Australia, however adapting your site to the country you are targeting will give you a competitive advantage.
The use of idioms and colloquialisms in the original English text should be limited as translatability is often questionable and can create unnecessary complications. For companies that clearly want to target a global market, such considerations should be taken into account prior to preparing the English content, thereby creating a better starting point from which the process may be simplified.
A good global website needs more than just translating – it needs to be localized. Localization can be defined as adapting the content not only from a language perspective, but also from a cultural perspective where diagrams, symbols, color, graphics and technologies are taken into consideration.
The overall content and layout of your website may need to be reorganized to accommodate right-to-left and/or top-to-bottom reading. Your aim should be to establish rapport with potential customers in other countries, not inadvertently insult them by using graphics or colors that may offend them. For example, the color white, which symbolizes purity in many cultures, is the color of mourning in Japan. Some countries are unfamiliar with common US symbols, such as the mailbox or file folder used in most sites. Many details vary according to culture and can easily be misinterpreted. Where Americans will show dates numerically with the month first, Europeans will show the day first. In this example 6/12/02 would be read as December 6th in many countries. Zip codes, phone numbers and addresses vary in length in different areas. One of the most frequently overlooked details is currency, which is often not clarified in US websites. Foreign users may wonder if the price is being quoted in Canadian dollars, New Zealand dollars or Australian dollars.
Although technology is slowly changing and universal coding standards are being developed, once your site has been translated there may still be technical considerations. Many languages only require one byte to encode all their characters, while for example, Japanese and Chinese require two. HTML accommodates 255 characters but Chinese has 10,000. Fonts for non-Western text, such as Arabic, must be treated differently. In other words, do not ignore the technological aspect of globalizing your website.
To summarize, localizing your website could mean re-branding and consequently should be viewed as a major project. If your aim is to establish a rapport with your audience, remember that influencing a consumer in Hong Kong is different from informing a business executive in Switzerland. To ensure that all aspects of globalizing your website are considered, consult the professionals. Since there is a growing need in this area, there are many firms that specialize in website localization. These firms should be able to assist you with the editing of the original English text for ease of translatability and provide professional translators who are knowledgeable in the target culture, as well as technicians who are experts in transcribing your English text into other languages.