Multilingual Issues in E-Commerce

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A great advantage of the Internet is that it gives companies, regardless of size, a global reach. However, international markets present problems of their own, and one of the most vexing is language. The typical company Web site in the European Union can usually display the same page in four or more languages. By contrast, at the beginning of 2001, only 35 Fortune 100 companies had Web sites in languages other than English. In 2001 85 percent of all Web sites were written in English, although only 45 percent of Internet users spoke English as their native language—and the percentage of English native speakers drops with each passing day.

Doing business in more than one language can have clear benefits for a company. By one estimate it can increase a firm's revenues by as much as 300 percent, and by 2003, according to Forrester Research, Europe and Japan will account for about half of all e-commerce revenues. A firm's customers are more comfortable using a Web site in their native language and tend to remain at such a site twice as long as they stay at sites other languages. Nothing shows a firm to be global more than a multilingual Web site. Finally, a multilingual Web site is an important courtesy to foreign customers, one that builds trust and confidence and lays the foundation for a long-term relationship.

Translation of a Web site into a foreign language is not a straightforward task—it can be fraught with peril. For example, the Pepsi-Cola slogan "Come alive with the Pepsi Generation" was translated into Chinese unwittingly as "Pepsi brings your ancestors back from the dead." The best way to avoid such errors is to develop a Web site in neutral English, without slang, colloquialisms, or word play. Preparation makes translation easier and assures consistency among all translations of a company's Web site. Some companies first develop a model Web site that incorporates specific elements recommended for all its foreign language pages; other optional material—for example certain press releases of more narrow interest—can be omitted by local or regional offices.

Translation is best done by native speakers who grasp the various senses of all words and are also familiar with the cultural background and business practices of the target market. Finally, translations should be checked and double-checked by native speakers. Because language variants are spoken in different parts of the world—for example, one form of Spanish in Spain, another in Latin America—the language on foreign language pages should also steer clear of local dialect, colloquialisms, slang, etc.

Translation of the English text is only the first step. There are a multitude of nonverbal Web site elements whose significance in a foreign culture must be taken into consideration. For example, familiar icons such as the hand-up palm-out "stop" sign or the thumb-up OK sign are considered obscene in some countries. Color can also carry unintended, possibly alienating meanings. Green is sacred in the Middle East, for example, and it is considered sacrilegious to use it in connection with money, while in parts of Asia, to write a person's name in red is to wish him or her dead.

Other apparently simple Web site elements must be translated too, or companies risk customer confusion or resentment. When Americans write December 1, 2002, numerically, the order is month-day-year: 12-01-2002. In Europe it is written day-month-year: 01-12-2002. Similarly the address fields on the order pages of most U.S. Web sites can accept information only in United States format. How should international customers respond if their locale doesn't have street addresses or postal codes or if there is no field for a country? Forrester Research found that in 2001 75 percent of American Web sites able to take online orders could not accept international addresses. Web sites looking to attract a multilingual clientele should also take other factors into consideration: weights and measures, currency, ways of writing time, etc. There are so many apparently insignificant items to take into consideration that consultancies have arisen in the e-commerce sector that specialize in designing and maintaining multilingual, multicultural Web pages or in performing "cultural audits."

If a page is translated but international users area not able to find the translation on the Web site, it is pointless. A language gateway is needed or users will be lost. Some sites use flags to indicate their multilingual pages. This can be problematic. Mexicans, Argentineans, Colombians, Chileans, and many other nationalities besides Spaniards can be expected to access a site's Spanish pages. Plus, too many flag icons quickly eat up space on the screen. Alternatives include the word "welcome" in each target language or a pull-down menu listing the languages.

Translating a Web site can alter the layout of a Web page too. When English is translated, the text almost always gets longer or shorter. European languages can take 10 percent more space than the English equivalent, while English text gets shorter when translated into many Asian languages. Length affects more than the text on a page. If an English command fits perfectly in a graphic element—a command bar, for instance—the German translation will almost certainly overflow the graphic, throwing the page layout off.

Global companies must consider becoming completely multilingual. Unless the multilingual site is only intended as a prestige item, multilingual staff will be needed to deal with e-mail and phone inquiries that come in foreign languages. If such services are not available, a company should clearly say so on its Web site.

The transition to multilingual e-business can be tricky, and it is best to make a slow transition, converting to one language at a time and using the experience garnered from one transition to make future conversions smoother. It is expensive to set up a multilingual site. A Web site with pages in six languages can cost 20 percent more to set up than a single-language site, and that's if the site is designed from the ground up as multilingual. Adding languages to an existing English site can add as much as 50 percent to the original cost. Once up, multilingual sites cost at least 10 percent more to maintain. They can cost time as well. Jupiter Media Metrix estimated that multilingual site planning takes up to ten months. Another expense is compatible software. One of the greatest challenges for a site going multilingual is adapting software to accept languages other than English. Unlike Western European languages, whose character sets are supported by most software, some Asian languages use over 6000 different characters, which cannot be reproduced by most software packages. Combining just English, Cyrillic, Hebrew, and Arabic character sets, not to mention Chinese or Japanese, can call for expensive, complicated modifications. The basis for the modifications is Unicode, a "super character set" that is able to represent most of the world's languages.

Despite their expense, multilingual sites can save a company money in the long run. According to the Aberdeen Group, customers are less likely to return goods they purchased from a Web site in their own language. In addition, if users can read the site's FAQs and access account data in their own language, they are far less likely to make customer service calls to a company, a major source of expense. Aberdeen Group found that every customer service call can cost a company US$30 to US$60; A Web site visit, however, costs only about US$1.

Multilingual sites have rewards as well as costs for a company, and they must be set up with care. A good site, once in place, can increase a firm's market many times over.


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