An articulate language policy can speak volumes

Business users are three times as likely to buy when addressed in their own language, according to the authors of a study* of the use of foreign-language content on top UK company websites. Whether even this justifies the cost of a multi-lingual site is a

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IBM Xerox
Microsoft Vodafone
Electrolux Delta Airlines
American Airlines British Airways
Marriott Jaguar
Rolls-Royce Motor Cars Burberry
Le Creuset Bang & Olufsen
GlaxoSmithKline BP
HSBC Unilever
General Electric Queen Ethelburga’s

A new study by SDL, a language specialist, shows that 43 of the UK’s FTSE companies do not have any foreign content on their websites. Should we be appalled? Not really. For one thing, translating a big website is an expensive business: if a company decides the cost outweighs the benefit, that is a reasonable commercial judgement. For another, the commercial web is still in its infancy; and there is evidence that companies are trying, even if they have not got far yet.
What is worrying is that few organisations have a consistent language policy on what is, after all, the worldwide web. Too often, the result is a mess.

The multilingual single template approach

Let’s start with the exceptions. Some of the big technology providers have created massive multilingual sites based on a common template. Try IBM, Xerox or Microsoft. They work well, presumably because these companies like a complex technical challenge. Vodafone has an effective approach too: an eclectic bunch of local sites – in Albanian and Romanian, among others – are held together in a frame.

Electrolux shows that organisation, rather than translation itself, is the key. Most, though not all, national subsidiaries use the same template but have modules of translated content dropped in as relevant. This is localisation, not just translation, at relatively low cost.

Travel broadens the range

I would expect the big travel operators to be fluent in other languages. Some are: most airlines have a range of non-English sites, though among the giants Delta and American Airlines reinforce prejudices about American monolingualism. I’m not sure what to say about British Airways’ belief that all South Americans speak Portuguese. And why are the big hotel groups so hopeless? The only non-English site I could find was a Japanese one from Marriott. “Business users are three times as likely to buy when addressed in their own language,” SDL tells me. It should tell the hotel groups, too.

One language for the rich

Upmarket brands sold round the world should surely speak to their wealthy clients in their own language. Yet hardly any do. Even the best efforts, such as Jaguar have only gone some of the way. While Japan and big European countries have fully-translated sites, Latin Americans have to cope with English, while Scandinavians are offered an anglo-local hybrid. Rolls-Royce Motor Cars has a remarkable multi-language search engine for second-hand Rollers (search in Italian for a car in Belgium), but lacks non-English material on new cars. Burberry is in English only; Le Creuset has a French site, but all other material is in English; Bang & Olufsen is entirely in English. It’s intriguing that non-anglophone companies often feel that producing a site in English only (B&O is Danish) is internationalism enough.

Corporates experience local difficulties

The lack of language policy is even more clear on corporate sites. While many offer plenty of non-English material, it is inconsistent and – as confusing – inconsistently presented. So GlaxoSmithKline takes us to many different country sites from the home page – but clicking on El Salvador, we find nothing in Spanish and a link to the Ribena page which is “reserved for UK residents”. Like GSK, BP and HSBC use intermediate pages to introduce specific country sites. Not only are these pages in English, the use of language is inconsistent. BP has a German version of the site but a French “portal”. What’s the difference? HSBC (, “the world’s local bank”, has an English-only site in that most francophone African country, the Cote d’Ivoire. Unilever has no links to non-English material, but if you replace .com with .de you find yourself in a (very dull) German site. The same trick works with other European suffixes though not, strangely, .fr.

Final proof that large corporations have yet to get to grips with the language issue comes from the normally impeccably thorough General Electric. The point about this site is that you can find any product or service you want from the home page – unless, that is, you want to know about it in a foreign language. Click on “healthcare”, and you are sent to an all-English home page. But type in, and you find an immaculate multilingual offering. GE failing to co-ordinate? Things must be serious.

The key to this confusion can be found in one company that has got it right: Electrolux. It started work on localisation several years ago, and developed its own process to allow copy to be translated locally using a split screen. In other words, it has a mass production system where the other giants are still largely in the costly age of hand-building.

When to give mechanical translators their say

Where does the expense of translation leave small organisations? Well, they should at least consider machine translation. Yes, it produces clunky and sometimes farcical results, but if you want to communicate with a prospective Portuguese customer, it may be better to offer bad Portuguese than good English. That is what Queen Ethelburga’s school in York does. It provides eight languages, including Korean and Japanese, to lure prospective parents. “This is a computer translation of the original web page,” it says. “It should not be regarded as complete or accurate.” Fair enough – though it perhaps would help if the warning itself were translated.

  • SDL International Multilingual Content Survey of FTSE 100 Companies.

First published on 20 June, 2002