Translating your content into other languages: is it worth it?

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Don’t be fooled by spam bloggers, repeating tired phrases like ‘increase your brand reach’, or ‘boost your online presence’ — the answer is, generally, no. But, there are some cases where the cost to benefit ratio makes translation a truly worthwhile investment.

As an English speaker, having to jump through linguistic hoops is an alien concept. For most places you go and most jobs you apply for, English will always suffice. Others will adjust to you, either excited by the prospect of refreshing their Anglo-fluidity or wearied by yet another English speaker expecting the world to cater to them. But while it’s rarely necessary for social situations, what about business? With so many internet users world-wide possessing little to no understanding of English, should content creators be translating articles, subtitling videos and generally expanding the reach of their work? Don’t be fooled by spam bloggers, repeating tired phrases like ‘increase your brand reach’, or ‘boost your online presence’ — the answer is generally no. For longer-form content such as articles, the ROI is simply not there. But what about shorter, more verbally sparse content? Software tools? Or content with a slant towards a particular foreign culture? In truth, there are some online businesses that can benefit from multilingual translation — skip down to find out if you’re one of them.

The harsh truth

This may come off as dismissive, offensive even to the freelance translators who rely on such work, but it’s true, for a variety of reasons. Mainly — the problem of translation itself. For anything beyond the simplest, most practical information (and not too technical, mind you), translation is at best a medium-resolution rendering, at worst an artistic slaughterhouse. Blog posts, extended writing and any content with style or a particular turn of phrase require a very experienced, very talented translator to retain the ‘feel’ of the original piece. A translator has to be a good writer. You cannot superimpose an English article into French. What you can do is read and interpret the article, then recreate it as best you can in the other language. Your skill and finesse as a writer will determine how well this new creation comes out. A European reader with mediocre English may even prefer to read the original, with voice and style intact, than a more easily-comprehensible, artistically void replication.

When it’s worth it

What we’re talking about here is user experience. Translated blog posts are often clunky, style-less things, offering little in the way of enhanced UX. But not all content is so linguistically complex, and in these cases translation can maintain most, if not all, of the original value. So, here are a couple of scenarios where translation could indeed (*cringes in horror*) ‘expand your online reach’, or ‘increase your brand awareness’.

  1. Selling and shipping products across the globe. You might be offering something that is unavailable or more costly in other regions, and so are receiving foreign traffic. When it comes to product information, many users want the assurance of reading details in their native language. A CSA report found that 40% of global users will not buy in other languages, a fact that varies from country to country. Taiwan (at 90%) and France (at 70%) are unsatisfied with English-only info, whereas countries like Romania and Saudi Arabia are unperturbed, viewing English product details as a badge of quality. Find out where you’re selling to, and decide whether or not translated item listings will earn you more customers. Alan Jenkins of Black Robin Exhibits comments, ‘When exhibiting internationally, we have found that research is always necessary to gauge whether or not translated copy is required. In the Netherlands, everyone knows English, and there is absolutely no need for Dutch renditions. The same cannot always be said for Poland, Japan and so on.’
  1. Software developers. Whether it’s an indie game, project management software or a video editing tool, installed applications can benefit from offering multiple languages. In many software tools, jargon is inevitably employed for digital functions. Some, like ‘Cut’, ‘Copy’ and ‘Undo’ are relatively obvious, others, such as ‘Render’, ‘Defringe’ and ‘Rotating Clone Stamp’, are less intuitive. Non-native speakers may be already familiar with the jargon their own native language employs, and so offering translating these terms may significantly improve UX.
  1. Video subtitling. For some content creators, the simple act of adding international subtitles could earn you new followings in that country. One YouTuber notes that ‘20% of my audience watches translated versions of my content. I have followings in Poland and Taiwan, purely because I translate the subtitles.’ Not every language is well-suited — Chinese users may be great in number, but are blocked from accessing the internet, so are of scant value as a consumer demographic. Portuguese, Spanish, Polish, Taiwanese and Russian are safer bets, as the inhabitants of these countries use the internet avidly and are less likely to know English.
  1. Cross-culture content. People are always interested in foreign perspectives. ‘A European living in Japan’, or ‘A Japanese person in Europe’ are titles that frequently crop up on YouTube. Any content which is designed to offer an outsider’s perspective on a particular culture will garner interest from the residents of said culture. In cases such as these, not providing translations would be to miss out on a potential audience that may turn into a long-term following.

Many have heralded the digital age as the death of regional barriers. Linguistic diversity will dwindle, they argued, and advanced translation technologies will enable fluid conversation between all individuals the world over. This utopia (or dystopia) is far from a reality. Barriers remain, cultures hold on to their identity, and many countries resist the homogenisation of the English language (the UK’s closest neighbour, France, for one). Most websites offer only one language, as the reward for translating them fails to justify the labour cost. Ross Pike of web design agency Koreti Ltd comments, ‘Some of our clients get excited about the prospect of a multilingual site. To access a whole new market beyond the reach of their competitors seems, no doubt, attractive, but when they see the bill for managing a multilingual, multi-page site, excitement tends to lessen.’ Yes, translation is painstaking, and yes, its application in online business is indeed limited, but there are those for whom the investment is worth it — and in these cases, the exercise can be highly profitable.