Businesses told to translate, localize and sell worldwide

Posted on October 17, 2013


The UK government, like many others, is banking on export-driven growth to get the economy out of its current rut and is urging businesses large and small to embrace international trade if they haven’t already done so. Yesterday’s Click: Connect: Sell event in London, which focused on online trading and e-commerce and was organized by the government’s UK Trade and Investment (UKTI) department, is just one example of this export drive.

Apart from many new networking contacts, I came away from the event with this clear message to businesses: e-commerce is booming, so get online, get a website and start selling across borders, but not before you have translated and localized your website content effectively. Of course, the translator in me is only too glad to hear this as this could mean many potential new customers.

But it’s true, if you want to sell to foreign customers you need to sell to them in their own language and take their culture into consideration as well. As the late German Chancellor Willy Brandt once said: “If I am selling to you, I speak your language. If I am buying, dann müssen Sie Deutsch sprechen (you have to speak German).” And apparently this is particularly true in Germany, even though a large percentage of Germans do speak English. So despite English being the most widely spoken language in the world, if you include non-native speakers, it isn’t good enough to have a website only in English. Of course, it’s equally unhelpful if your website is only in French or only in Spanish, for example, and you want to sell internationally.

Research shows people will spend twice as long on a website if it’s in their own language, 70% of online inquiries are in languages other than English and 90% of European web users search in their own language. And if that’s not convincing enough, 91% of new internet users now come from emerging economies.

Mr. Brandt’s quote clearly demonstrates the power of the buyer over the seller in any transaction. Perhaps not always, but in most cases, it is the buyer who commands the bargain, and it is the seller who has to showcase his goods in an attractive and convenient manner to make it as easy as possible for the prospective buyer to understand the benefits of purchasing the product. It’s all about customer service.

But it doesn’t end there. Once you speak your customers’ language you also need to take local culture into consideration and adapt or localize your website accordingly. This could mean adopting a different color scheme because colors may have different connotations in different countries or it may affect your layout or which online payment system you use on your website. When it comes to website domains either adopt a generic .com domain for greater global appeal or have different websites with country specific domains, so the experts say.

And back to language, even though the same language may be spoken across many countries you cannot assume that there are no regional variations, so you have to be clear about which specific market or country you are targeting – is it Portugal or Brazil, Spain or Mexico, Egypt or Lebanon and so forth. The saying “two nations divided by a common language” doesn’t only apply to Britain and the United States. Just as Americans wanting to sell chips to the British will have to call them crisps, Spaniards wanting to sell peaches in Mexico better call them duraznos instead of melocotones, and Brazilians will buy a tela if they want a computer screen whereas the Portuguese will be looking for an ecrã. 

In order to trade online worldwide successfully, speak your customers’ language and act as local as possible to build trust and show them that you care, according to industry speakers at the event. And before anyone asks (as they did yesterday): NO, Google Translate won’t do, nor any other machine translation software for that matter, unless you want to end up having translations like these:

“You are invited to take advantage of the chambermaid.” – in a Japanese hotel

“Not to perambulate the corridors in the hours of repose in the boots of ascension.” – in an Austrian ski resort

“Drop your trousers here for best results.” – in a Bangkok dry cleaner


PS: The UKTI runs many programs to help UK exporters, including reviews of communication and website strategies, and its Open to Export website is worth a visit. Of course, it also assists foreign investors looking to invest in the UK.

Simona De Logu

Simona de Logu is an experienced freelance interpreter and translator, specialized in GermanEnglish, but she also works with French, Spanish and Portuguese. You can find her on Google +, Facebook, LinkedIn and Her areas of expertise are economics, finance, business, politics and current affairs due to her previous professional background as a financial journalist.

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