Dismantling the Tower of Babel

When Mark Twain came across a French translation of his story The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County, he reached for a French/English dictionary. It would be amusing, he reasoned, to have a go at translating his work back into English.

The results, of course, were hilarious. Were he alive today, Twain would perhaps have reached for a mouse, and relied instead on an on-line translator.

Today computers rule our lives (if there is any debate here, please note Y2K) and the Internet is fast becoming an omnipresence, yet our ability to understand other languages and cultures has not been greatly improved by these technologies. And as the language barrier still exists, companies are making hard, and lasting, decisions about how to deal with the new realities of commerce and information in the Internet age. New questions are being raised, such as, What languages should our product be offered in? How do we handle multilingual tech-support? Where do we target our Web site?

When it comes to international business presence, few companies can match the linguistic variety of IBM Corp. and Microsoft Corp. Their products are offered in a myriad of languages and their corporate Web sites are available in almost as many.

For Microsoft Corp., the decision to translate Word into a new language is taken, not surprisingly, after extensive research. Almost every year markets are evaluated to decide if investment should be increased, or occasionally decreased, according to Chris Pratley, group program manager for Microsoft Word, in Redmond, Wash.

Full versions of Word, replete with spell-check, hyphenation and help files, come in more than 30 languages, making it the world’s default word processor. “There is a certain amount of peace of mind that comes in saying we support all of these languages,” Pratley said. Down the line, he said the goal is to have Word support every language, at least to the extent of font and keyboard support.

Though few other software manufacturers can match Microsoft’s language menu, the gap is shrinking. The Spicer Corp., a software manufacturer in Kitchener, Ont., offers its goods in more than a dozen languages. Like others, they have to absorb the substantial cost of translating their software. “The European countries always want it in the language of their choice,” said Lynne Pierce, manager of support services with Spicer.

Nortel Networks Corp. in Brampton, Ont., has a slightly different situation. Since it is less consumer based, a predominant portion of its customers speak English. Nevertheless, failing to offer services in a number of languages would send the wrong message, according to Steve Santana, director of Web site development. He said offering services in several languages shows customers that Nortel is willing to go more than half way to forge a relationship and build a customer base.

Samsung of Korea has solved some of the problems of internationalization by making English the official language of the company. “Officially we try to correspond in English…but on a worker’s level they correspond in whatever language is more comfortable for the two people,” said Matthew Ki, assistant manager, storage and OA products management at Samsung Canada Inc. in Mississauga, Ont.

He added that all official announcements and correspondence from the head office in Korea are in English and that any other translation is done internally by the regional headquarters. Documentation from the Korean head office is translated into French by the Canadian subsidiary. And since some of their products or models may be released only in one country, the documentation for these products may never exist in English.

Offering a product in a wide variety of languages is not an inherently difficult business process. If it was, then hundreds of small companies would be barred from expanding their linguistic offerings. But the Internet is a whole other ball game, and the rules are far from written in stone.

Here comes the Web

Photographs are said to never lie. Unfortunately the same cannot be said for statistics. Web numbers depend on who you talk to and which statistics you choose to believe.

At the end of this year, will there be 105 million Internet users as set by e-Stats or 200 million as Computer Economics would have it? Is it likely that the number of French users went up 250 per cent (Mediangles) while during the same period the number of German users increased by only 35 per cent (NOP Research Group, GfK)? In addition, there is still the cloudy process of defining “user.”

This is an important issue as it determines the size of one’s potential market. Addressing that market, however, is another matter. While the Web allows business to extend its range dramatically, reaching out in one language alone may not be sufficient.

English presently dominates the Web. Opinions on the future vary, but for the most part there is a consensus that English will be hard to topple from its perch.

“The Internet is going to simply function to further cement the dominance of English,” said Eric Manning, professor of computer science and electrical and computer engineering at the University of Victoria, in Victoria, B.C. He added that he doesn’t see even Chinese dethroning it. Eduard Hovy, director of the Natural Language Group at the Information Sciences Institute at the University of Southern California, agreed. “For the foreseeable future English will be the lingua franca [of the Internet] but with small pockets of others.”

Peter Reich, linguistics professor at the University of Toronto, is in partial agreement. He says English dominance could ultimately be overshadowed by Chinese but for the time being, “like television it is another mass medium that is dominated by English…the Internet is just a continuation of a trend,” he said.

What to do?

If English dominates, then why do so many companies post multilingual Web sites. It comes down to the cost benefit analysis of Web support and the value of localization.

In some cases, this analysis is straightforward. According to Waltham, Mass.-based Lionbridge Technologies Inc.’s CEO Rory Cowan, the savings realized by deflecting a call centre question to the Web are enormous. He said the on-line cost is US$2 for a Web visit vs. US$20 for phone support. IBM Corp. in Armonk, N.Y., cites corroborative numbers. In 1999, the company saved over US$750 million world-wide by diverting queries from call centres to Web self-service offerings.

With these numbers, localizing support is clearly beneficial. Localization is loosely defined as creating a local version of products. It means not just translating a Web site or help menu, but correlating the information to a specific country and culture. Missing out on subtle distinctions might be very costly. All one has to do is remember two words: Chevy Nova. In Spanish it loosely translates as “no go” – not exactly the ideal moniker for a car you are trying to sell in South America.

Intelligent companies can’t risk being perceived as ill-informed. It is here that specialized translation companies come in. Their job is not only to translate content but to make sure it is culturally in tune with the appropriate society. “The documents you put out reflect you as an individual or as a company and you want to insure there are no misrepresentations,” said Paul Penzo, operations manager of All Languages Ltd. in Toronto.

Nortel has multiple developers throughout the world and when documents head to the Caribbean, for example, it has to “take the content and put some salsa in it,” according to Maria Manzo, regional content manager.

But not all portions of a Web site require the same level of attention. “A technical support site doesn’t need much cultural sensitivity but a commerce site needs an extraordinary amount, because they are actually trying to have someone buy something,” Lionbridge’s Cowan said. But he added, “retailing is essentially a culturally-specific activity, there aren’t that many successful global retailers.”

but should you bother?

So is it absolutely necessary to have your Web support and software in a dozen languages to ensure future participation in the global market?

Gemplus SCA, one of the world’s largest makers of smart-cards, is a thoroughly French company, with a twist. Their Web site, for the time being, is only in English. “There are a lot (of people) bemoaning the fact that there is not very much French content [on the Internet],” said Ken Abbott, manager of technical communications at Gemplus SCA in Gemenos, France. “I think that the bitching has gone down, a lot of the people I talk to now say it is time to forget about the whole French language thing and give it up. English is the international language and let’s just get on with it.”

That sort of sentiment is echoed by Manning. “The Internet is just going to drive the last stake through the heart of anybody who naively thinks other languages are going to be big players. I think the people who are looking forward to a Francophone Internet are dreaming in Technicolor,” he said.

He continued, “If you think you are going to use the full resources of the Internet without learning English, forget it.”

Yet, ultimately, it may not really matter.

Computers have been translating languages for about 50 years. The quality has been, to put it politely, bad. But the Internet offers a new hope that machine translation will one day efficiently translate Web pages into whatever language you set as a default.

As it stands now, you can use machine translation “in areas where the cost of failure is quite low,” Cowan said.

Penzo agrees. “Machine translation I don’t think will ever work for anything other than giving you a basic understanding of what the document has to say.” He added that he has tried machines but “they just don’t cut it. If they worked, believe me, I would have them here in my office,” he said.

Hovy, for the most part, agrees but he sees a slightly different human reaction to the present limitations of machine translation. With more and more people writing with the Web in mind, Hovy said there might be an increase in simplified writing, thus giving machine translators an easier task and thereby increasing accuracy beyond the present level.

And the future of language and the Internet? If the Internet has taught us one thing it is that “the meek do not inherit the earth.” Many of those spoken to see a future, not too far off, where you seamlessly surf the Internet with nary a worry as to the language of your requested site. All will be automatically translated and the only difference will be a small legal disclaimer saying “this site has been machine translated, caveat emptor.”

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