A few years ago, a major multinational in Europe spent a good portion of its IT budget on licensing and then implementing a software suite application throughout its factory operations around the world. The implementation failed, but not for the myriad reasons why enterprise IT projects usually fail. The company and the hapless system integrator it hired, in fact, had the technology piece down pat. When employees in the factories in Poland and Malaysia logged onto their computers, the appropriate screens and applications immediately came up.

In English


The systems integrator had neglected to localise an application that would be used by workers who did not read English. Nor had it localised the training materials or web interface or underlying code base, where necessary.

After the systems integrator tried and failed to solve the problem, the multinational turned to a provider of localised language services. It took a year to rectify, but once the project was complete, the company had no desire to repeat its experiences. It put its new partner, Lionbridge, a global provider of these services, on contract to maintain the content in its systems.

Nova et Al 

It has been a few generations since a North American car manufacturer provided the perfect object lesson in the dangers of a poorly localised product. That was the car that it tried to introduce in Latin American markets, infamously called Nova, which in Spanish means ‘it does not go’ or ‘do not go’.

The software implementation failure demonstrates that not all firms have absorbed the language lesson, even as markets and economies have become increasingly globalised over the decades. “A company will spend two years developing and testing a product and then planning its marketing,” says Kevin Bolen, chief marketing officer of Lionbridge. “And then it will leave the translations to a local sales operation or think of it as its local distributor’s problem.

“What happens to that company? After spending all that money, its first contact with the customer is usually an embarrassment.”

The good news is that awareness has, for the most part, increased. Also, the technology in this space, called machine translation, has improved considerably even on applications released at the beginning of the decade. But although machine translation has a role to play in a corporate operation, it is still only a small piece of the localisation process – and, many believe, is still not accurate enough to be used without human supervision. Even if it were, most machine translation packages do not address one of the biggest pain points for companies: industry-specific or technical terms that do not have a foreign language equivalent.

Product localisation 

Before the pros and cons of machine translation can be considered, though, it is important to realise how comprehensive localising a product, such as a software application or new mobile phone, can be. First, all of the content that needs to be translated must be extracted, says Mr Bolen. This content can range from different menu items, to help systems and embedded macros. “Sometimes the source code level has to be localised for it to recognise a character set,” he says.

Then there are structural issues, such as date formats, or units of measure. If it is a multimedia application in which text is embedded against a speaker or a video, the translated audio and text must synch with the images on the screen. “This can be tricky because some languages – German for instance – can take longer to read,” says Mr Bolen.

And then there are the mechanics of translation itself. Translated text must read as though a native speaker has written it. The only way to achieve that is to have it translated by a native speaker. According to Mr Bolen: “Even little words, such a using ‘screen’ instead of ‘monitor’,” can have an impact. “A translation might be linguistically accurate, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it is culturally accurate.”

Machine translations 

A translation may not even be accurate at all. A hotel in Vienna warns guests that in case of fire, they must do their utmost to alarm the hotel porter. A Swiss restaurant promises patrons that its wines will leave them nothing to hope for. A car rental agency in Japan warns customers: “When passenger of foot heave in sight, tootle the horn. Trumpet him melodiously at first, but if he still obstacles your passage then tootle him with vigour.”

Some of these are no doubt the work of amateur translators armed with an English-to-German or Japanese-to-English dictionary and little else. But the cadence and structure of these sentences are painfully reminiscent of the output of some machine translations, says Robert Beard, president of Lexiteria, which specialises in custom translation and localisation management, custom-created dictionaries and word lists. Mr Beard provides these and other humourous examples of mistranslations on Lexiteria’s website.

“Machine translations are good for rough translations at best,” he says. “The problem is that too many companies assume they are infallible or far better than they really are.” These examples are quite funny – from a reader’s perspective. “But from a marketing perspective some of these translations – tootling a horn with vigour, for instance – could be disastrous.”

The human touch

Mr Beard doubts the technology will ever improve to the extent that a company could use a software application without a human translator to oversee the process. “First of all, you would need a computer with enormous capacity and fuzzy logic.” He gives an example as illustration: “Consider the sentence ‘I will meet you by the bank’. Bank has two meanings that are unrelated but can be applied here. It could refer to a financial institution or the bank of a river. A human translator would know which ‘bank’ is correct, judging from the overall context. For a computer to be able to make this distinction, it would need an enormous amount of storage space and computing power.”

To be fair, machine translation has advanced considerably. Chinglish.com is a newly launched company, based in the Netherlands, that offers machine translation between English and Chinese. Eventually, CEO Marius van Bergen says, the company hopes to add human translators to its product line-up.

The product, though – an e-mail translation service in which users can see both English and Chinese side by side – offers several advanced tools, including the ability to hear how the word is pronounced, see the definition for a particular word by highlighting it and switch between complex and simplified Chinese. Chinglish did not develop this functionality; rather it integrated what it says are the five best translation products on the market to build its platform. “In many situations, machine translation can work very well,” says Mr van Bergen.

Struggle for words

Most people in the translation business agree that one area of translation that is unlikely to benefit from machine translation is industry-specific terminology or vocabulary. Mr Beard, for instance, does translations for Volvo, and says that the process of compiling dictionaries for automotive terms can be a painstaking and highly labour-intensive one.

Ghada Attieh grew up in Lebanon, studied in Quebec and France, and travelled throughout the US as a State Department interpreter. Now, she is an Arabic, French and English translator of her own localisation firm, Beyond Words. Like most translators, she struggles with certain terms that do not have direct correlation in another language. The American concept of mentor, for instance, does not resonate in most Arabic cultures and thus can be difficult to translate.

Lately, though, Ms Attieh has been having difficulty resolving how to translate new concepts that have been introduced in the Middle East. “As the justice systems in many countries have become more democratic, we now have concepts such as alternative dispute resolution and mediation that need to be appropriately translated, according to the laws of the area. It is not enough to know the terminology; the concept has to be correct as well,” she says.


“Localising in China is not necessarily a one-off exercise – you may have to consider doing it over and over again as you penetrate new regions of China,” says Johnny Eugster, CEO and creative director of Middle Earth, an advertising agency that specialises in taking western brands to China and Chinese brands to the west. Mr Eugster, a fluent Mandarin speaker, adds: “There are huge differences between the affluent and educated of the cosmopolitan cities such as Shanghai, Beijing and Guangzhou, the growing band of second-tier cities and the closed-off masses of the interior.”

As a result, making sense of advertising and marketing in China can be a difficult process. Middle Earth’s vice-chairman for Greater China, Edward Tsang, agrees: “An ad that tests well and achieves good results in Shanghai is not guaranteed to be well received in Wuhan, and vice versa.”

At least this has always been the prevailing school of thought.

Brand unity

We may be seeing the beginning of some change, as Chinese middle class consumers begin to attain some ‘brand unity’ with their western counterparts. “Consumers the world over become defined by the products they buy. As they make the same purchases for the same reasons they become more receptive to the same messages they are fed through advertising,” says Mr Eugster.

Dr Tsang would go further. “Human nature is the same. Most agencies here are too lazy to dig deeper for the universal insight of their products.”

Chinese consumers also expect different things from advertising. In the west, the talk is of “standout” and the need to be entertained; in China, where the advertising industry is still very much in its infancy and many consumers spend more time reading the details of the pack, the need is for information. However, once again, a more western-led expectation of advertising is now slowly filtering down from the cities.

Besides cultural differences, distribution and logistics remain the biggest obstacles for western consumer brand companies wanting to make a success in China. The road infrastructure, though improving, does not yet have sufficient reach and the rail network is underused and unreliable. There is also no real sense of responsible scheduling when it comes to delivery times in China. The delivery date of a shipment depends on a variety of different and unpredictable factors.

Staff retention

Middle Earth chairman John Gaynor cites staff retention as an ongoing problem in moving a business in China forward, especially if a company is seen as a frontrunner. Having started up a successful advertising business in Taiwan he now sees the same problem occurring all over again. “We found that in the advertising and marketing business, women were harder working, more honest, more flexible and keener to acquire and improve professional skills. Job offers for skilled staff come thick and fast and money usually beats loyalty hands down, so it’s good advice to show appreciation, pay well and offer good training.”

With all the current hype, it is tempting to rush headlong into China, but it is advisable to be cautious and to assess the marketplace first to avoid unpleasant surprises. Middle Earth advises that sometimes it is not veen necessary to have a physical presence in China: Middle Earth Shanghai affiliate MKM Communications markets goods and services on behalf of foreign companies, enabling them to act in China without the high set-up costs of establishing a wholly foreign-owned enterprise, the billing restrictions and taxes that come with a representation office or the obvious risks of a joint venture.