When to go native?

Some big companies are moving closer to a ‘one language fits all’ approach to their online content. So what price thinking global talking local? asks David Bowen.

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In a world where cultural sensitivity is ever more important, we should be making every effort to communicate with our audiences in their own language. Right? Wrong – at least according to the corporate web managers I know.
At our conference last month two speakers from big companies told how they were planning to slash the number of languages they provide. One has analysed the numbers coming to the site and is reducing languages from about 25 to six. The other is going through a similar slash-and-burn exercise.
These are the complete web estates – country sites and all. On corporate sites alone, there has been a similar diminution of ambition. Vodafone used to be a model of multilingualism – a range of buttons in the footer slid you between Greek, German, English and more. Now it’s in English, English and English.
What’s going on? Depending on your point of view, there has been an outbreak of common sense or the Anglophone steam roller is running out of control. At the risk of upsetting web managers struggling for order, I’m inclined to the second view.

The words are just the beginning

The first point to make is that language is not just about translation, it’s about localisation. There are sites that simply take the same content and translate it. One that has done this rather impressively is Philip Morris International. Here, you can read exactly the same comments in more than 20 languages about the prevention of youth smoking or about community initiatives.
But this approach is only going a part of the way – the words should be adapted as well as translated. The companies that do this most assiduously are those that sell to consumers. IBM wouldn’t get very far if it tried to sell computers to Latvians, Greeks or Italians in a language that was not their own. So it doesn’t try to. Another company with an impressively international outlook is 3M. Go to its website and you find 40 localised and largely translated sites; company as well as product information.

Losses in translation

So why are companies I regard as leaders in the online world going in the opposite direction? Because, they say, they need to get the balance right. On the one hand, they must be responsive to local issues, they must tailor content to local needs and they must be flexible enough to respond to local political or market changes. On the other, they have to use their resources most efficiently – and that means standardising where they can, reducing inconsistency in order to control messages and, of course, saving money on translation.
It is no coincidence that companies that are taking the coldest and hardest look at ‘governance’ issues – how to run the web estate most efficiently – are also those that have got the linguistic axe out. I know from my own conversations that they are unlikely to run into much resistance at corporate HQ – everyone speaks English there anyway, and they are happy to jump on the Anglophone bandwagon (particularly those who do not have English as their first language, oddly).

In command of the conversation

The question is: are they right? Cutting languages seems an easy way to reduce complexity. But maybe it’s too easy? I know (also from conversations) that even people who speak English flawlessly, but not as their first language, prefer to use their own tongue. ‘When I have an argument with a British colleague, I always feel he can use his command of language as a weapon,’ one said to me.
I am British, so maybe I should feel happy that I have this command. But I don’t: I feel embarrassed that in a group say of 30 Germans, where I am the only person who doesn’t speak German, the whole meeting will be held in English.
Even if we are communicating with people who have excellent command of English, we should not say ‘that’s all right then’, and give up on their own language. Needless to say that also means we should be communicating in their language with people who don’t speak English well: Polish in Poland, Slovenian in Slovenia, Slovak in Slovakia. In fact, central Europe is the big issue right now – lots of increasingly well-off people insisting on speaking a smorgasbord of languages. Is there any alternative to giving up and telling them to learn English?

How do you say that?

I think there might be. It’s certainly worth putting effort into looking for an answer. If we don’t we are going against the whole idea of the ‘long tail’ – that the internet can serve niche audiences – and falling back on something like the 80:20 rule. I know why we might do that; but it doesn’t feel right.
First, some content management systems (CMSs) are excellent at ‘blueprinting’. The centre produces content, posts it on the CMS, the local web manager picks it up, adapts it to their local needs, and gets it translated if necessary. It may not cut the basic costs, but smoothes the workflow, and should save time and therefore money.
Second, might it not be possible to go all ‘web 2.0’ and get the people out there to do the translating for you? I wouldn’t want it done on sensitive copy, but some sort of wiki could perhaps be used to translate or at least to improve translations. I have winced many times at poor English on websites, and would have been happy to suggest corrections if there had been a mechanism for doing so. There must surely be Latvians who feel the same about poor Latvian?
The fact that Wikipedia is out there in 27 languages, including Esperanto, suggests there is no shortage of people who could help. Question: would they? Worth considering anyway.
Third, and perhaps most important, there has to be a commitment at the centre saying that local languages and localisation are important. I can hear web managers throwing their hands up in despair. They are all overworked, this is the last thing they need. Which brings us to the thing that would really make a difference: more resources dedicated to the web from an enlightened multilingual senior management. Hopelessly optimistic now, but worth hanging on to as a goal, n’est-ce pas?

First published 08 July, 2009
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