If your business operates somewhere that more than one language is spoken, you’ll eventually have to face the question of translating content. Having worked at a company that supports multiple “core” languages and often additional “expansion” languages, I can attest that it’s a lot more complex than it appears on the surface, especially when the products you offer vary from one place to the next. But through my experience, I’ve also learned a few key lessons that may help you stretch your budget for content writing and translation—which can quickly get out of hand if you you’re not careful.
One of the first things I was surprised to learn was not only how many people speak English in other countries, but how well they speak it. Residents of some countries, like Germany and France, prefer their own language, but the majority of people have at least a rudimentary working knowledge of English.
In countries with lesser-used languages, like Denmark or Sweden, English can be nearly ubiquitous. These countries may use English as a default language with which to speak with other countries they trade with, and whose media they consume.
As a native English speaker that’s not fluent in any other languages, it was a humbling realization, but it also means that in a pinch, you may be able to get away with English content in many countries and regions if you follow some of the other lessons below.
When deciding if you need to translate content, consider not only where your audience lives, but who they are.
People from first world countries are much more likely to speak some English than people second or third world countries. People with higher education levels are also more prone to speaking multiple languages—English especially.
If you’re selling consumer products and appealing to the general public, you’re probably better off translating content to accommodate a wide range of demographics. But if you’re selling business products, your audience is more likely to be educated and have prior exposure to English as part of doing business, rendering translation less critical.
Certain industries are concentrated in specific countries, like movie making is largely lead by the USA. So if you’re writing for a movie making audience, no matter where they are, chances are that they have to know enough English to keep up with advancements and news in their industry. There are few motivators to know a language like paying the bills.
If you haven’t done a lot of translations, you may think you can simply supply content in your anchor language (like English) to a translator and then get back flawless translation. Simple, right? Wrong.
There are many translation approaches, including more literal approaches and approaches that focus more on conveying the meaning and intent of your original content. If you have native speakers of a translation language in your company, you may find that upon review, they have extensive problems with the translated content you get back—even from well-established translation companies. This can lead to expensive back-and-forth that costs you both time and money.
You should always have a second independent party validate the quality and accuracy of translations when possible, but how can you cut down on these kinds of misunderstandings in the first place? Keep your original content simple.
Use shorter sentences. Cut down on flowery language. Be more literal and avoid metaphors and cultural idioms that may not translate (American English is so full of these, they’re almost a language unto their own). Reduce use of industry jargon that translators may not fully understand. Opt for a simpler vocabulary, even if you lose some nuance in the process.
All this makes it easier to translate your content and reduces the number of opportunities for translation to miss your original intent.
One of the biggest mistakes you can make when undertaking content translation is assuming that a single language is consistent across every country or region where it’s spoken. Mexican Spanish is different from Central American Spanish, which is different from Spain Spanish. Canadian French isn’t identical to French in France and the Swiss Germans can get awfully annoyed if you make them read the German they use in Berlin.
When you start tallying up the costs of not only the languages you want to translate, but all the localized variations on those languages, the financial burden may begin to appear insurmountable.
But don’t lose hope. While it’s probably true that you’re going to ruffle a few feathers by making French Canadians read French from Paris, that doesn’t mean they can’t understand it at all. They may simply be expressing pride in their own local identity. Does a person from California want to read English content written in Manchester? Probably not. But they’ll still get the gist.
It’s important to have a good advisor here to tell you where you can get away with using a single language translation across regions that would prefer to have their own dialects represented. It may not be ideal. You’ll probably hear complaints. But if you have a limited translation budget, and you have to choose between supporting two local dialects of one language or supporting two completely different language translations, smart money is probably on supporting two.
Perhaps most importantly, unless you’re selling a very fickle product, those differences for local dialect translation aren’t going to affect a purchase decision. If Jaguar only supported one version of English, would you really decline to buy one because they referred to the car’s trunk as a boot? Not many people will. And the sales you get by supporting a country or region with content in a non-preferred version of their language usually far outweigh the few sales you might lose to prideful readers.
So remember—wants are not necessarily needs in the world of translations and a good advisor can help you tell the difference to keep your content translation costs under control.
One assumption that I’ve seen quickly balloon translation costs is the idea that you have to translate each and every piece of content you have. And that’s false. Your customers may do just fine with a website that’s one level shallower or with a collateral system that has a few less brochures and data sheets. You may know what they’re missing, but chances are, your customers don’t know what they’re missing. The abbreviated experience approach is especially useful when you’re going into a new market that hasn’t yet proven its financial viability. It’s a good way to reduce your cost exposure for market entry if it doesn’t pan out.
In summary, don’t default to translating everything. Think about what customers really need and prioritize translation by first tackling the content that’s most likely to yield the greatest return.
Fact: Some languages take up more space than others. I’ve heard it estimated that you need roughly 40 percent more space to say the same thing in German as you do in English. That means that if you have a brochure template in English with a rigid four-page limit, you’re going to frustrate yourself when the German version doesn’t fit.
This can drive runaway design costs as you go back-and-forth trying to make your translated content fit rigid templates or as you work with designers to create new templates altogether. The easy solution? Build the flexibility into your content templates on the front end.
Doing business in the Middle East or Asia? Languages may be read right to left or even top to bottom. Do your templates dictate image placement or content layout in a way that only works when you’re reading right to left and top to bottom? You may have more to consider if you want your content to flow well.
Content translation can look like an insurmountable task at first. And while you shouldn’t take it lightly, there are definitely some shortcuts you can take, depending on how you handle it and who you’re writing for. If your budget doesn’t look like it’s as robust as you company’s appetite for content translation, or even if you just want to be a content cost-saving hero, keep the tips in this post close by and you’ll be able to stretch your translation budget further than anyone expects.