From the April 1998 issue of Startups

Armed with little more than a modem and access to the Internet, today's homebased entrepreneur can become an instant contender in the international marketplace. But it takes more than a modem and a Web site to become an instant success in that marketplace.

Pitching your products to the international community involves the same marketing issues you're concerned with domestically: What concepts, images or slogans will attract customers? What strategies will work best in this market? Unless you're at once a linguist, an anthropologist and a diplomat, you may find these questions difficult to answer. Successful international marketing demands an understanding of language as well as cultural issues, sensitivities and symbolism. Something as simple as the colors of your Web site can mean the difference between a sale and a cultural faux pas.

One solution: "Localize" your Web site and any other materials you intend to distribute to the international marketplace (including brochures, sales literature and product documentation). Localization means more than acquiring a word-for-word translation of your materials; it means developing a marketing approach that is both internationally effective and culturally correct.


Moira Allen is an author and former technical writer who lives in Olympia, Washington.

Start At The Beginning

Though localization agents are often listed in the Yellow Pages under "Translation Services," the key difference between localizers and translators is the point at which they begin. Typically, traditional translation can take place only after you've developed such materials as product documentation, sales brochures or a Web site. The problem with this approach is that it can only "make over" materials that were designed primarily for U.S. or other English-speaking markets.

What is appropriate for U.S. customers, however, may be ineffective or even offensive in other countries. Many American phrases, concepts and images make no sense at all abroad. For example, Sol Squire, president and CEO of Twin Dragons Software Inc. in Gloucester, Massachusetts, cites KFC's disastrous attempt to translate "finger-lickin' good" into Chinese: "It's good enough that you'll eat your fingers off." At best, a word-for-word translation can sound stiff and unnatural; at worst, it can create costly blunders.

The solution is to address cultural issues before you engineer an international marketing strategy. Cultural awareness, say most localizers, should be addressed early in the planning process. In addition, it should be addressed by someone who understands not only your target market but the product or service you're trying to sell. "We require any translator to have a minimum of 10 years' experience with the subject matter," says Gerry Carson, senior vice president of Pan-American Access Inc., a full-service translation and localization company in Atlanta.

Squire agrees: "You wouldn't hire someone off the street to write marketing materials just because the person spoke English. So why hire someone to develop or translate your technical and sales documents just because of [his or her] language ability?"

The Right Stuff

An effective localizer, says Squire, should ask marketing questions at every stage of the process: "What are the `hot buttons' of your target market? Who is your competition? How does your product differ from the competition's?" Different countries have different expectations, and many localizers offer specialized testing to determine whether the product meets those expectations.

Localizing your approach from the beginning also enhances consistency. "Every industry has its own terminology," Carson points out. "That terminology needs to be consistent in all your materials." Carson's firm employs an "active terminology recognition" database that stores a lexicon of phrases and terms used in documents, so that every piece of literature will be translated consistently.

Avoiding Pitfalls

The perils of poor translation are obvious, even ludicrous. Who can forget Chevrolet's failure to realize that, in Spanish, "no va" means "does not go"? Other issues, however, are more subtle.

For example, it's not enough to simply decide you want your materials or Web site translated into Spanish. Which part of the Spanish-speaking world do you want to target? The terms and idioms used in South America are very different from those used in Spain or Mexico. Similarly, according to Carson, the French-speaking Québecois do not respond well to marketing materials written in "Parisian" French.

George Hallak, president of AramediA Group, an Arabic software firm in Boston, points out that there are at least 22 Arabic nations and dialects; an experienced localizer should know that the accepted business standard for the region is "Modern Standard Arabic." To further confuse matters, some languages also have formal and informal versions. Make sure the localizer you choose understands cultural idioms and regional variations of the language.

Your problems compound when you seek to tap markets that use non-English, Roman alphabetic languages (e.g., western European); non-Roman alphabetic languages (e.g., Arabic, Greek or Russian); or nonalphabetic languages (e.g., Asian). To use any non-English language on your Web site, you must ensure your browser supports language fonts containing accents, diacritical marks and special characters. Putting an Arabic or Hebrew translation on your Web site is even more complicated because these languages are read from right to left.

The complications involved in using Asian languages on your Web site exceed the capabilities of most homebased offices. The fonts needed for these languages contain more than 7,000 characters. A standard PC doesn't have the screen resolution to display such fonts, and most standard servers can't handle the system requirements of such languages; a double-byte operating system is needed.

One solution to this problem, according to Carson, is to incorporate your translated material as an image rather than as text. Too many complex graphics, however, can increase the download time required to access your site. If you want to post a lot of material, another alternative is to have your Web site hosted by the localization agency's server or by an ISP.

Nor is language the only issue you must address. If you're setting up a Web site, you'll also need to make culturally sensitive decisions regarding graphics, icons, interfaces and even the colors you use. Squire relates the tale of Euro-Disney, whose designer loved purple and used it lavishly throughout the theme park. Unfortunately, to the French, purple suggests funerals and funeral parlors. Similarly, while red is considered stimulating in the United States, it is regarded as restful in China. White symbolizes death in most Asian countries, while "yellow should be avoided pretty much altogether," Squire says, as it often has negative connotations.

Combining colors in a graphic can also be a problem, says Carson--if those colors represent the hues of a rival country's flag. While such concerns might seem trivial to a U.S. audience, it's important to remember many countries are embroiled in intense rivalries. "If you're marketing a product to Chile," Carson cautions, "you don't want your Web site colors to represent the flag of Brazil."

What Price Correctness?

Besides looking in the Yellow Pages, you can search on the Internet for localization agents under "localization" or "translation." Be sure to inquire about the agency's knowledge of your target country's culture, its familiarity with regional dialects or language variations, its understanding of your business, and its expertise in developing international marketing strategies.

Costs vary widely from agency to agency and depend on the project. Translation is generally billed at a rate of 18 cents to 25 cents per word, says Carson, and is based either on the original word count or the translation word count. More extensive services--such as Web site consultation or development--are generally billed by the hour.

The cost of localization may seem high, but you must ask whether that cost is balanced by the potential for sales in an international market. "Ignoring cultural details will keep U.S. products from competing in the international marketplace," says Squire. Overseas customers won't tolerate badly translated materials or repackaged English-language products. The key to an effective marketing strategy is the same in any language: Know your market.

A Site Of Many Colors

As you develop a multilingual Web site, remember that not all countries use the same equipment or standards. In many countries, time is billed by the minute, which means a site that is slow to download or difficult to navigate will cost your clients money. To avoid problems--and to increase your site's international accessibility--try the following:

*Keep images to a minimum. They increase download time--and images that are effective in the U.S. marketplace may be misunderstood or considered offensive in other countries. Also, offer a link to a text-only version of your site.

*Make sure your site can be navigated easily. "Don't try to dazzle the user with your cleverness," warns Gerry Carson, senior vice president of Pan-American Access Inc., a full-service translation and localization company in Atlanta. Provide clear instructions, and don't bury those instructions within images; provide text guidelines as well.

*Use international formats for dates, times and currencies. In most European countries, for example, "3:30 p.m." would be written as 15:30, while "July 4, 1776," would be written as 4.7.76.

*Develop an e-mail response form that includes automated options (such as radio buttons, where users can click on their choices from a list of options), thus minimizing the amount of translation required.

*Instead of displaying all your material on your Web site, make it easy for customers to request information via e---mail.

Contact Sources

AramediA Group, 761 Adam St., Boston, MA 02122-1919, http://members.aol.com/gnhbos/aramedia.htm

Pan-American Access Inc., (404) 239-0595, fax: (404) 239-1858

Twin Dragons Software Inc., (800) 453-2277, squire@twindragons.com