How to Build a Successful Company by Overcoming Linguistic and Cultural Barriers in Southeast Asia

ASEAN is reported to total some 600 million people, 9 per cent of the world's population, and knowing how and when to outsource localization is key to becoming a successful business in the region.

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As a consultant who has spent the last three years jumping among countries in the ASEAN region, I have learned first-hand the difficulties localizing web and social media properties in various countries. Leading the charge as helper resources are translation and localization agencies. Their business is to help clients communicate in the country after country, usually by creating “anchor” countries (and languages). Then they seek to replicate their successes, nation after nation. Korea, along with Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore, are the four little tigers (or dragons) that have achieved top-tier development status in Asia. Still nowhere near the economic impact of China or Japan, these economies are regarded with envy by second-tier nations in SouthEast Asia. This second-tier of developing countries are struggling to develop even as technology, automation, and Artificial Intelligence has the side-effect of taking away much-needed jobs.



How Translation and Localization Companies Regard Rising ASEAN Economies

ASEAN is reported to total some 600 million people, 9 per cent of the world’s population. Little Singapore is in a class of its own, but many seek to emulate the oversized success of the tiny ultra-modern island dynamo. Some quick facts (courtesy the CIA) about the top 5 up-and-coming nations in ASEAN and their demographic, economic and linguistic profiles:

  • Thailand is a nation with a population of 70 million, 20th in the world. 90 per cent of its population speak Thai, with Malay and Burmese making up the remainder. English is a second language but presents in popular use only in the capital of Bangkok and tourist areas. GDP is $1.236 trillion (2017 est.) and per capita $17,900. GDP growth rate in 2017 was 3.9 per cent. Thai script has no less than 44 consonants and 15 vowel symbols that combine into 28 vowel forms, and four tone diacritics. If each vowel symbol is considered a letter, there are 59 letters in the Thai alphabet. If you consider each vowel form as a letter, there are 72 letters in Thai! Even though Thai grammar is relatively simple, the complex written character set poses a major challenge for translators and interpreters.

  • Vietnam has a population of some 100 million (2020), 15th in the world. 8 per cent of its population are Viet (Kinh), but there are dozens of distinct tribal groups throughout the country. The overwhelming majority speak Vietnam, written in Roman characters with extensive diacritic marks. English has displaced French as the nation’s second language. GDP is $648.7 billion (2017 est.) with 6.8 per cent annual GDP growth (2017) and GDP per capita $6,900.

  • The Vietnamese alphabet comprises 29 Latin letters in the alphabet, which is known as quoc ngu. These letters are the same as the English alphabet but does not include f, j, w, and z. 7 altered letters using diacritics: đ, ă, â, ê, ô, ơ, and ư

  • The Philippines’ population topped 105 million in July 2018, 13th largest in the world. English is an official language and spoken widely. GDP is $877.2 billion (2017 est.), per capita $8400, growing at 6.7 per cent annually. Filipino uses Latin characters and therefore poses no special challenges to translators or keyboards. The language was constructed largely based on Tagalog but also blending elements of 8 other languages of more than 120 languages in use in the country. The linguistic diversity has made the Philippines into a vibrant translation hub for some localization companies. 

  • Malaysia has a population of 31 million (42nd in the world) with a $933.3 billion (2017 est.), $29,100 GDP growing at 5.9 per cent. Bahasa Malay is the official national language, using Latin characters, with the English language in common use, but the country has more than 134 living languages - 112 indigenous and 22 non-indigenous. 

  • Indonesia has a population of 268 million. Its GDP is $3.25 trillion (2017) growing at 5.9 per cent. Per capita GDP is $12,400. Its language is Bahasa Indonesian (a modified form of Malay), English, Dutch, local dialects (of which the most widely spoken is Javanese). No less than 700 languages are in use in the country.

  • What is striking is the sheer size and diversity of these nations, economies, and linguistic situations. Thailand stands out from the others with its distinctive non-Latin script, no doubt an obstacle to internationalization. Its growth rate is well below its neighbors, but it starts with relative prosperity per capita, trailing only oil-rich Malaysia. Vietnam is the fastest-growing of the bunch, but it has the furthest to go to raise its GDP. Linguistically, each country has its own unique challenges. Compared to Europe or the Americas, it’s a “wild east.”

Coming to Terms: Translation and Localization, Internationalization and Globalization

Translation and localization are nouns that are also used, sometimes interchangeably, as adjectives to modify company or agency. However, they’re not the same. The translation is a subset of localization, focusing on the adaptation of language only. Localization includes conversion of numerical and date/time formats, currencies and measurements. It also considers cultural preferences, likes and dislikes, essential to marketing, selling or communicating to the market. Localization focuses on adapting websites and software applications, especially mobile apps.

Both terms are part of the overall mega-trend of globalization, the process of branding and marketing to markets worldwide. The incremental cost of entering new markets is relatively small compared to the costs of adding new products or services. Internationalization is a related term: this is the process of making content assets, especially digital, ready for localization. This is largely done in programming code prior to the localization process.


How translation/localization companies can help you crack ASEAN nations

For the last three years, I’ve been traversing ASEAN countries as a language-focused consultant, freelance writer, and editor. What follows are partly subjective impressions based on my travels and conversations with other itinerant entrepreneurs in the region as well as anecdotal information pulled from experience working with freelance translators as well as translation and localization agencies. Some advice on working with expert resources to overcoming language barriers: 

  • Rely on experts. You can’t possibly do business or communicate with locals on your own. Happily, plenty of translation and localization companies serve these markets. Some focus exclusively on them, usually because they have chosen one of the ASEAN nations as a hub. This gives them a leg up, at least in the countries in which they have set up regional offices.

  • Do your research. Obviously the web is the go-to place for comparing international caliber translation and localization companies. But don’t neglect to ask local marketing agencies and business colleagues who they know. Ask each candidate agency for customers and then do some call to find out the experience of colleagues. Southeast Asia is a land and not unfamiliar to scammers taking advantage of the unfamiliarity of outsiders with the local culture. You need to cultivate some insiders. 

  • Prioritize SEO Expertise. If it doesn’t rank in the search engines, it doesn’t exist. Seek out proof that candidate agencies know how to do SEO in your target languages. They need to know how to construct an ecosystem of relevant terms for your products and services in each language. An SEO specialist should be part of each language team. Insist on it.


Subject Candidate Translation and Localization Agencies to Rigorous Comparisons

Compare at least 3 to 5 translation and localization agencies. Here are the key criteria by which to compare candidate companies:

  • Responsiveness. Your requests for a quote should get an initial response in hours and a detailed quote in a day or two if additional information is solicited. Speed and time to market are key differentiators.

  • Strategic orientation. You don’t want to hire a passive reactive agency. Look for one that will take the time to understand your business, ask tough questions, and think out of the box. Test them especially on whether they know how to take a company from one country to another, and in which order.

  • Language support. Make sure the translation company is strong in your target markets and globally. As a rule, serious translation agencies support 20 or more languages. Some even exceed 100.  You basically want to ensure that your chosen localization company can go in both directions with abundant resources for the markets you need and the specific language pairs and domain expertise.

  • Work Guarantee. Mistakes happen even in the work of the best translation and localization companies. But time to market is critical. So you want to be sure that the agency will stand behind its work product and fix any error even after delivery and acceptance of the work. Expect months at least. Some will guarantee even a year.


The Reality of Working with Translation and Localization Agencies: Pros and Cons

After you’ve agreed on terms with the sales and marketing team of your translation/localization agency, you’ll be handed off to an account executive, who will be the liaison between you/your company and the various translation teams doing the actual linguistic work. Each team usually includes one or more translators, editors, and project managers. In cases of software, website, or app localization, there will usually be a technical team to work with developers and webmasters.

There are a few downsides to working with agencies: you don’t have direct access to the linguists, which can be unsettling if work product is below expectations. On the other hand, you need less of your own management resources because your agency does the work for you.

The biggest downside is the cost. Agencies need to cover their overhead, so rates tend to be substantially higher than working directly with freelancers. How much higher? 50 per cent up to 200 per cent seems to be the usual range. You pay a premium for a one-step-shop to do your linguistic work.

But you may find that the time to market benefits and the ability to delegate projects to experts will justify the extra investment in these services.


Freelance Translators: A Viable Alternative to Translation and Localization Companies?

Given the cost premium of working with translation/localization agencies, the question arises if it makes sense to work directly with freelancers in each target language. These days it’s possible to find an ample supply of translators in most languages under the sun – including Southeast Asia languages, in freelance marketplaces like Upwork, and Fiverr.

Register with these platforms as a client and solicit bids from high-quality translators. Review their profiles and rates, rating and reviews. Engage them in conversation and negotiate terms. After you reach an agreement, you deposit an escrow payment of the first project milestone (which you define) but you release it only after the work is delivered to your satisfaction.

The advantages of working with freelancers? Their rates are considerably lower than in agencies. You have free choice with whom you work, and you can enjoy direct communication with them.

There are also downsides: you need to invest time in selecting and managing them. They are human beings who get ill, get lazy, or take trips. For each language you need to hire one, or preferably two: one to check the work of the other, and to fill in if the other fails or flakes out.


Three Closing Tips on (Mis)Translation and Localization in South East Asia.

Hire one freelance expert per language to audit the agencies and serve as your (relatively) inexpensive handpicked consultant for each language and local market. This investment pays for itself in saving your time and increasing the quality of the localized product.

Get to know the advanced features of Google Translator. Camera translation, image translation, two-way voice interpretation. How did traveling business people do without them before the power of this app (Microsoft Translator is close but not quite as good IMO) is exceptional? You don’t want to rely on Google’s machine translation algorithm for publishing sensitive or subtle content assets. But online translators are adequate for research, conversation, and customer support communications. Not to mention reading menus and street signs. And they’re free!

But I’m not free to leave without sharing a story about the risks of mistranslation. I was in Manila, at a client meeting, and someone used the word “achuchuchu.” I really thought maybe someone sneezed, so I politely blurted out “bless you.” Everyone in the room burst out laughing at me. Someone explained that this Tagalog word refers to the meaningless insincerities people utter in convoluted conversations about really nothing at all. In Seinfeld’s: “yada yada yada” 


So: Achuchuchu!