Website Translation, Localization, Language and Culture

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The internet is changing. Not only is it now the first port of call for people seeking information but it is also no longer dominated by English speakers. Both transformations spell good news for exporters seeking new markets.


In the good old days when we looked for a company, a supplier, a shop or a product the Yellow Pages or our high street would have more than likely been the only way of getting results. Those within a sector or industry may have had personal contacts or organisations that could have pointed them in the right direction. Nowadays research shows that most people turn to search engines such as Google or Yahoo!, at least for some initial fact finding. For example, if you want to buy in thousands of car flags for Euro 2008, simply punch in “England car flags supplier” are you are met with 904,000 results.


Add to this the fact that people using the internet are no longer domestic, i.e. English speakers, and the potential of the internet for a company becomes massive. The growth and development of international trade and commerce now means people are seeking products, affiliations and clients from the four corners of the earth. Just as exporters in the UK may be seeking distributors in China, businesses in India may be seeking an exporter in the UK. The key to success is being found.


To be found, one needs to have a multilingual internet presence. The internet is simply no longer the preserve of English speakers. Major languages such as French, Arabic, Chinese and Spanish are now all contributing to the overall percentage of internet users. As more and more countries develop their internet infrastructures and more and more people can afford a PC, the number of internet users in foreign countries will increase at dramatic rates. Languages such as French and Spanish have been spread to Africa and Latin America by their colonial owners. Arabic is the language of the Arabs and Islam and is therefore read from Morocco to Malaysia. China now boasts and internet savvy population of 123 million, less than 10% of the population. Within 10 years the majority of internet users will not be native English speakers. A foreign language website is therefore crucial for those companies wanting to capitalise upon this vast and ever-growing foreign audience.


A foreign language or multilingual website offers forward looking companies with three main benefits.


1) You reach a new audience: Research shows that people prefer information in their own language, want information in their own language and are more likely to buy something if presented to them in their own language. By communicating to them through your website you tap a huge market and increase your reach.
2) You build credibility: If your company only has a site in English and your competitor in all major languages, which one will gain more credibility? Translation of your website demonstrates that you are a truly international player. In addition, it shows you understand, value, and have respect for that particular country or region.
3) You increase revenue: Billions of dollars, pounds and francs in potential revenue are lost each year due to lack of investment in website translation. Most internet users will naturally feel more comfortable and understand a company better if their information, products or services are presented in their native language.


So this all sounds rather easy doesn’t it? Simply run the site content’s through a free translation tool, whack it up using the same template as the English site and away we go. Unfortunately not. In fact if you did that you may very well lose business.


As with anything that crosses linguistic, national and cultural barriers things get ‘lost in translation’ and the website is no different. Many sites can get away with a simple translation, however many can’t. Why? Because their English website would be unsuitable for the target market. As a result many in the industry have moved away from the term “website translation” to “website localisation”.


Website localization is the process of modifying an existing website to make it accessible, usable and culturally suitable to a new target audience. It is a multi-layered process needing both programming expertise and linguistic/cultural knowledge. If either is missing, the chances are that a localization project will encounter problems.


In the majority of cases it is the lack of linguistic and cultural input that lets a website localization project down. In order to give an insight into the impact culture and language has on website localization the following three areas shall be examined.




Something as simple as a company or product name may have a detrimental impact on its success. The world of business is littered with examples of names being met with hysterics in foreign countries. Classics include the IKEA desk named “Fartfull”, the US computer company with the slogan “Wang Cares” (you should be able to figure that one out – keep pronouncing it) and the new Honda unveiled in Scandinavia called “Fitta” which was a local term used to describe a sensitive area of the lady’s anatomy.


Famously within the world wide web, the very successful U.S. search engine Dogpile found that it could not break the European and UK markets. Research finally pointed out to them that people did not want to use a search engine that was associated with scraping off a certain brown substance from their shoes. The company promptly changed its named in Europe to WebFetch.




Translating a website from English into another language is not as simple as it may appear. There are numerous factors that have to be taken into consideration when translating a websites’ content.


Do all the words, phrases, sayings and metaphors translate directly to the target language? Would it be wise to translate the phrase “everyman for himself” in text describing a company or product if this is going to be read by a highly collectivist culture? Does the content of your website use humour and if so will the target culture appreciate or even understand it? Native alternatives should always be sought and used in any website localization.


When translating into another language carefully consider the variants. If it is to be an Arabic website then is aimed at Tunisians or Iraqis, Egyptians or Yemenis? If you are targeting all Arabic speakers then you must ensure Modern Standard Arabic has been employed.


You must also analyse the style of the language and the target audience. If the audience is foreign business personnel, the vocabulary, grammar and punctuation must reflect this. If the audience is informal or youth orientated then a more relaxed language must used. Just as we in the UK would identify the difference between a site using “posh English” and “street English”, other cultures will have the same perceptions of language. Using the wrong language for the wrong reader in your localization project will lead to a misunderstanding of the site or company.


It is essential to assess what information is necessary to carry over into the new site. Do not assume that all information on the English site is automatically transferred over. One must evaluate the target culture and society. Is it a culture that relies on information rich writing to fully understand a concept or product or is a culture that relies more on images or one that needs little text to grasp ideas and concepts? If your English site employs a lot of technical language then consider how best to transfer these concepts without the use of language.




Images carry many subtle cultural messages. These can speak volumes about your company or product. Pictures or images may have certain negative connotations that may repel users or on the flipside appeal to users.


For example, if a travel site in a Muslim populated country used pictures of scantily clad women in bikinis, disco dancing and beer drinking, the chances are that they would not be very successful.


When including pictures of personnel it is wise to tailor these to what the target audience will look positively upon. A picture of the Director behind a desk in an office will be fine for a seniority respecting society, but for an egalitarian society it is better to show the Director mixing with staff.


Another tricky area that many have foul of is the use of maps and their cultural or political meaning. One particular region that has caused such problems is the disputed area of Kashmir between India and Pakistan. Unknown to many is the fact that the Indian government has regulations against the use of an unapproved map – that is, if the area is not represented wholly as Indian territory. Many companies have had problems with this including:


1) CNN and Fox News both faced a huge backlash when being accused of doctoring a web-based map to remove Kashmir as Indian territory.
2) Microsoft’s time zone control panel feature in the Windows 95 edition showed a few pixels as part of Pakistan rather than India which resulted in it recalling thousands of editions and costing them millions.
3) SmithKline Beecham reprinted a journal which showed the region as wholly Pakistan’s resulting in demands for apologies and removal of the journal.


Symbols & Colours


As with pictures, symbols can cause problems in localization. Icons using fingers such as an OK sign or V-sign may mean different things to different cultures. Our Western symbols do not always mean the same abroad. An oft cited example is the representation of the house referring to a “Home Page”, or a letterbox to “Mail”. In many countries houses and mailboxes don’t look the same. The use of animals in logos can cause embarrassment and further problems. For example, pigs are considered unclean in the Middle East and cows as holy in India.


Similarly, choosing the wrong colour for your logo, background or website template may say the wrong thing about you or simply not work in another culture. Colours may not always have serious consequences however it is always best to check that they carry not negative connotations in their target country.


For example, in Japan white is commonly associated with mourning where as in the UK it would be black. In China red is auspicious, in the US it would be seen as the colour of aggression. In Africa certain colours represent different tribes. In the Middle East green is associated with Islam. In India yellow means prosperity. Even though we don’t know it, many of us associate colours with meanings and these change as we move across cultural borders.


So as we can see, translating a site is not that straightforward. Above we have only looked at three areas of consideration; others include navigation, content, access and search engine ranking. Although it may look like a daunting task, for those savvy enough the process is quite simple.


A key point to bear in mind is that having a website translated or having a website localised is very inexpensive if you consider the revenue it could generate. The internet is still in its infancy; as it grows it is communicating to more people in more languages. Now is the time to capitalise upon and harness this future potential. Those companies that act now will in years to come be way ahead of the game. Those that view it as yet another expense, will be playing catch-up.

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