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Localize your website for a global audience

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In this four-part series, we'll look at the steps involved to create a global website for your business

So you'd like to bring your business to the world - and the world to your website. It's a tempting proposition, alright: On one hand, there's an increasingly wired world out there, waiting to do business with you. On the other, there's a whole micro-industry of services that specialize in "localization" - the art of taking a website, and customizing it for a foreign market.

Of course, it's never quite that easy. Translating a website involves more than simply translating the text, and navigating the woolly world of translation services can be a bracing experience. But it can be done - if you keep a few points in mind to start with.

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Translation ain't what it used to be: These days, localizing a website has as much to do with the website's technology as its words and pictures.

"Everybody assumes it's going to be easy," says Emre Akkas, one of the founders of GlobalMe, a Vancouver-based company that specializes in tailoring websites for global audiences. However, he says, the translation business has become a lot more complicated than it was when it dealt primarily in passing documents back and forth.

Some businesses try to do localization on the cheap: Taking the text of their website and handing it off to a translator, in the hopes of plugging the finished text back in. But not all languages make this a straightforward process. For instance, languages like Arabic and Hebrew read from right-to-left - and it's a matter of hitting the right-justify button on a word-processor: The entire layout of the page needs to be reorganized. Translated text can also take substantially more space than the original, says Mr. Akkas, which can further complicate the task of laying out a page.

One critical question is whether the website is built on a content management system (or CMS) that supports multiple languages. Some popular CMS systems, like Drupal and WordPress, support localization, but other, older legacy systems do not. If the software that underpins a website doesn't gracefully accept multilingual content, the task can quickly become nightmarish.

Also, remember that localization doesn't just mean languages: "It's also taking into account people using all these smart phones," says Tim Richardson, a professor of marketing at Seneca College in Toronto. "All e-commerce is m-commerce."

Other markets - especially in Asian countries - have an even higher rate of mobile adoption than the west, says Mr. Richardson. Especially in those markets, it's doubly important that a localized website be mobile-friendly.

Translate with care: In global cities, perched on a small world, it's not hard to find people who speak the language you're looking to translate into. This is a double-edged sword: An abundance of native speakers can make spotting a qualified translation service that much harder. The advent of the Internet, which collapses geography, only complicates matters.

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(One call to a translation firm, whose website listed a number and address on Toronto's Queen Street, was patched directly through to China, according to the baffled-sounding employee who answered the phone.) In Canada, translators are frequently freelance operators, who work either on their own, or in networks or with agencies. For instance, GlobalMe, Mr. Akkas' firm, employs a core staff of 8, and uses a trusted network of translators as they're needed for different projects.

Canadian translators and agencies are certified - and sometimes referred to clients - by groups like the Language Industry Association, or AILIA, which certifies its members' credentials. The acronym, fittingly, is bilingual. Its chair, Ann Rutledge, says that members can usually provide references to vouch for their quality, but, as a matter of professional practice, tend not to divulge their clients or want to appear to benefit from their intellectual property.

The time-honoured practice of following word of mouth is widely recommended as a way of finding a proven translator. Whether to trust native-speaking friends and colleagues with translation tasks is another question, though. Native speakers are no more guaranteed to be good translators than every anglophone is guaranteed to be a good copywriter.

"It's a very competitive field, and there's a lot of nonprofessionals out there," says Ms. Rutledge. "Bilinguals are not translators."

Others are more gung-ho. Mr. Akkas suggests that friends and colleagues who speak the language you're looking for are useful for double-checking finished products. And Prof. Richardson, who teaches courses on global marketing to learners from around the world, enthusiastically recommends international university students as a resource to draw on.

Should you localize in the first place? Before you get out the English-Mandarin dictionary, consider one important caveat: Businesses should think twice about appearing to promise more than they can deliver.

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"If your website's in a different language, then you need to be able to service people in that language," says Avi Goldfarb, an associate professor of marketing at the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Business.

After all, a customer reading a website that's written in, say, Korean, would be forgiven for assuming that the website's owners would be able to respond to e-mails and answer telephone enquiries in Korean as well.

Translating a website can be a pricey proposition, running from between 7 and 20 cents a word, with full localization running anywhere from the mid-hundreds to tens of thousands of dollars, especially if you're looking at multiple languages.

Rather than translate your whole website, Prof. Goldfarb suggests that the best approach is to focus on advertising in different languages using Google's AdWords. Online ads can affordably catch a customer's attention in their first language, then direct them to an English-language website. Written in accessible language, and plentifully illustrated, an English site doesn't promise more than your business can deliver. Attracting clients while projecting realistic expectations is good business for everyone.

Special to The Globe and Mail

The series continues next Monday. Other Stories can be found on the Web Strategy section of the Your Business website.

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About the Author
Technology Culture Columnist

Ivor Tossell has been writing columns about online culture for The Globe and Mail since 2005. A reformed web programmer, his writing on urban affairs, technology and culture has appeared in Canadian publications ranging from very glossy to downright inky. He lives in Toronto. More

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