International Business: Customers can help companies prioritize target markets and the languages to reach them

Published: Friday, Sept. 16 2011 9:00 a.m. MDT


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In 2003, while compiling a list of 55 languages for which interpreters might someday be needed, a county health department in Oregon included Klingon, an artificially invented alien language from the science fiction show "Star Trek."

According to The Oregonian, “no patient (had) yet tried to communicate in Klingon. But the possibility that a (mental) patient could believe himself or herself to be a Klingon doesn't seem so far-fetched.”

“I’ve got people who think they’re Napoleon,” said one county official.

Depending on various laws and ordinances, some government organizations may be required to support rare languages and sparsely spoken dialects like Ebonics. Conversely, most for-profit organizations need to be more discerning and prioritize language support a little more strictly based on market demand and profitability – and their greatest source of assistance may come from the consumers themselves.

Considering the more than 6,000 different languages spoken worldwide and the many products with millions of words in documentation that companies could distribute globally, companies may not always have it easy when prioritizing target markets and the languages necessary to reach them. With limited time and means, most companies simply cannot address every target market and language on their ideal wish list.

As much as businesses would like to simply go straight down a list of top languages by population, by GDP, or by Internet use and thereby determine exactly which global markets receive translation priority, strict use of such generalized resources – though better than nothing – is not the very best answer for every company.

Company-specific research will best reveal market priorities that will optimize time and resources. This often requires reaching out via phone or the Internet to potential customers in other countries to collect such information. However, something as simple as website analytics can help indicate the locales of current and potential customers. Starting with minimal translations of small-scale search engine marketing campaigns and landing pages can also be a low-cost way for companies to begin testing the waters in various markets.

Businesses that really engage their users and customers to solicit feedback are those that obtain the best information and help prioritizing translation necessary to enter and support international markets. As mentioned in a previous column on crowdsourcing translation services, some corporations (like Twitter, Hootsuite, Facebook, Google, and Mozilla) are able to engage communities of users to translate products into other languages. When users from a particular country volunteer to translate a product or website, their support lends credence to any argument to target that market. This approach has helped Google.com become the most translated for-profit website with 148 languages and counting – these include a few artificial languages like Esperanto, Klingon, Pirate, Hacker, Elmer Fudd, Pig Latin, and "Bork, bork, bork!" However, languages are not the only priorities that user communities can help sort when entering new markets.

“There is far too much content that needs translating, so we have to decide which is high priority,” explained Francis Tsang, director of globalization at Adobe Systems, Inc., to the Translation Automation User Society. “I believe that if we allow a community of users to start making those choices, then we gain a powerful insight into which parts of our products are most important.

“Companies like Adobe and Sun Microsystems use naturally-emerging crowds with specialist knowledge about products who want more product content in their own languages. This way we can localize product-related content for languages which may not be high priority, but which nevertheless help grow our markets."

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