Web Site Translation | WebReference

Web Site Translation

Web site Translation

A Primer for Webmasters, Authors and Owners

by Robert Hopkins, Jr. (rhopkins@weblations.com)


The world is a small place, and there's nothing better than the Web to prove it. Thanks to the Web, almost all the barriers to communication and trade of former years have evaporated. All except one, that is: language. A Web site that is accessible worldwide is hardly understandable to all of its audiences.

Are you a webmaster, a Web site creator or a marketing executive with responsibility for your organization's on-line presence? Then you should understand the international business opportunities that the Web presents. It is the only publicity medium in which you can grow from the local to global scale instantaneously, and at face value, for no additional cost. However, it's up to you to convert that worldwide exposure into effective relationship building by translating your Web site into the mother tongue of every audience that matters to you.

In this article we discuss the marketing, translation, technical and project management issues which surround the translation of a corporate Web site. For your convenience, the article is contained in one HTML file, book marked as follows. Feel free to skip down to the sections which interest you most:

Why translate?
Marketing and business issues
Translation itself
Technical issues
Case Study: The Iliad (translation aficionados only)

Why translate?

Not long ago, most content on the Internet was created by and for an elite group of academics and technologists who spoke English as a first or second language. With the creation of the World Wide Web and the improvement of telephony infrastructure worldwide, giving inexpensive and rapid access to whole countries at a time, the Web is playing to a vastly broader audience than the Internet ever did. Surveys show that this audience is growing most rapidly on a percentage basis outside the United States, and that everywhere, the newcomers are inevitably less wealthy and less educated than the original pioneers were. It stands to reason that they are less likely to be multilingual than their predecessors.

Meanwhile, the content of the Web is changing from technical and research material to entertainment, even advertising. To be effective, this new content must be presented in the reader's mother tongue. Only Americans insist that speakers of other languages should decipher or be expected to enjoy an English language Web site. They don't and they won't! If you're fortunate enough to speak another language, put yourself in their shoes. Given the quantity and quality of material on the Net today, would you surf in a foreign language? Heck no. It's just too tiring.

As Steve Martin complained in one of his European vacation movies: “Those French, they have a different word for everything.” It's a fact.

Marketing and business issues

The need for translation of a specific Web site should arise naturally from the marketing and business goals of the organization that created it. Does your company plan to or already sell its products in offshore markets? If yes, then your Web site, translated, can help you to establish a presence, build your brands, and sell and support your products in those markets. You can accomplish most of this astonishingly quickly, simply by translating and localizing your American material. Who knows...the Web could even become a potent force in your company for spreading the American virtue of customer service to your field offices.

As with any marketing idea, the marginal costs of translation should weighed against the marginal benefits. Leaving it to you to figure out the dollar value of the benefits, here are some notes on the cost side.

The going rate for a very basic translation with no technical complications is 10 to 12 cents per word, but when you factor in the difficulties of working with HTML documents, graphics, links, localization and/or internationalization and so on, plus the extra project management required and the difficulty of the specialized content itself, a typical Web site translation costs 35 to 40 cents per word. That works out to about $100 for the average sized Web page, and much more for a bigger page with graphics.

One thing to note about the marginal cost of going international on the Web is that it is entirely captured in the translation expense. You already are investing in the creative and technical resources to create and maintain your Web site in English. Those costs, honestly measured both in and out of house, are usually many times the cost of translation.

What companies are good candidates for translation? The answer: every company with potential customers in, or visitors from, foreign markets. The list of candidates includes, for starters, every Fortune 1000 company. (But how many actually have multilingual sites?) Add to that all the small and medium-sized companies with a thin-on-the-ground international distribution system that can be upgraded to domestic market standards through a Web site. In addition are companies with no international presence to date, but who have a unique product that they can ship directly to the customer, L.L. Bean style. Finally, consider the American destinations -- towns, hotels and resorts, Americana shops, museums -- that depend in some part on foreign tourism to be profitable.

What languages should you translate your Web site into? The answer depends entirely on who your present and future customers are. If they speak any of the following languages, then they live in markets with strong and rapidly growing Web user audiences: German, Italian, French, Hebrew, Spanish, Catalan, Portuguese, Greek, Russian, Japanese, Arabic, Dutch, Polish, Swedish, Danish and Norwegian. Alternatively, if you run a broadly popular Web site in English and want to reach the greatest number of new visitors for the lowest cost without targeting any market in particular, we recommend that you start with: Spanish, German, French and Italian.

We're getting to the point where almost every movie has its own Web site. Someday soon, we believe every movie's Web site will be translated into five or more languages. Why not? The movies themselves are. What is the cost of translating a movie's Web site compared to the cost of creating it in the first place? Tiny. And how important are foreign box offices to the overall profitability of an American blockbuster? Huge.

Following are some interesting multilingual Web sites:

Accent SoftwareNavigate with an Accent™ allows the end user to read sites written in non-western font languages. Accent's site is translated, at last count, into 11 languages.
MicrosoftMicrosoft's huge Web site shows how a multi-national corporation can adapt its Web site to local needs by offering translations along with the appropriate product mix for each market.
GlobalinkGlobalink's product Web Translator™ runs on an end user's PC-compatible and performs machine translations of Web pages in four languages. A good emergency solution for the end user, but from the Web author's point of view, it fails on two counts: the quality of the translation (see machine translation below) and the assumption that all of your visitors will own a copy of Web Translator.

A word about search engines. The automated ones such as AltaVista will work perfectly well in any language. To find American hotels, type hotel. To find Italian hotels, type albergo, which is Italian for hotel. AltaVista will search for titles, text and keywords one character at a time, without "realizing" what language it is working in.

It can get trickier. To find a French hotel, type hôtel -- if you know how to type the accent, that is. To find a Japanese hotel, you might as well raise the white flag and type hotel. You can hope and assume that the Web sites you are looking for will include hotel as a keyword, even though they are published in another language.

The Yahoo! style search engines, which are augmented by human editors, tend to work best or exclusively in their native language. Therefore, it pays to submit your newly translated Web site to the edited search engines in your target markets. (Yahoo itself has a rather incomplete list of these search engines; there are many more.)

Translation itself

What is translating? We define it as the process of reading, understanding, interpreting, rephrasing and delivering an original message, while capturing all of its subtlety and impact, to a new audience in its mother tongue, in the context of its indigenous culture. The best translators love words of course, but more importantly they love the life that words depict. They are the connection between the creators of a message and a new audience somewhere that would be incapable of getting that message without their help. Translators, especially of Web pages, are experienced specialists whose job challenges them on a daily basis. We've all been amazed at the breadth and depth of human knowledge displayed on the Web. Imagine translating it, not just skimming through it!

A translator's basic responsibility is to be “true” to the original text. If we consider a translation to be a form of inter-cultural message, then we should evaluate its faithfulness to the original on two counts: how the original message is expressed in the target language, and how it is received by the target audience. The translator is responsible for both of these steps in the communications process. The Internet in particular is teeming with audience groups who will receive the same message in different ways depending on their cultural background.

The upshot of all this is that a translation agency must have access to experts in each source and target language that it serves, not to mention each subject matter, writing style and language dialect. A subject matter can be learned, but for this intent and purpose, a target language or dialect cannot. The top agencies maintain contacts with a long list of specialists, calling on them when an appropriate job comes up.

Key to a high quality Web site translation is the willing participation of you, the client. If you're translating your Web site for a market where you already have distributors or representatives, then by all means ask an employee in that market to be on hand to answer questions and to review the completed translation. Your representatives will generally be eager to help since they will suffer or benefit from the consequences of the translation quality in the long run.

Whenever available, you should supply the translator with company literature in the source and target language, and a bilingual glossary of domain-specific terms. A translator cannot be expected to know which terms are favored by your company in a given market, and which are considered the property of your competitors.

Technical issues

The fact that a Web page is encoded in an HTML file makes its translation either impossible or very very difficult for the vast majority of translation agencies. They simply don't have the tools to do the job.

It doesn't have to be so. An agency that specializes in Web site translations should be able to download your HTML files directly from the Web, give them to its translators for translation, and return the completed work to you via e-mail. The Web actually facilitates the hand-off from you to the agency, since it can download your site without asking you to do a thing.

The graphics at your site that contain text (banners, buttons, titled photographs, etc.) must be translated consistently with the rest of the site, so that text and graphics versions of titles coincide. If you have lost contact with your original artist, you can have someone else retouch your GIF and JPEG files. They can cut out the source language text, repair the background and paste in the target language text using the same font as the original.

A living Web site grows and changes constantly. Maintaining the site in its translated version should not be a burden to its creators. That's why a specialized Web site translation firm should offer a site updating service, by which all updated pages are automatically flagged and translated, allowing you to maintain your site in many languages at a minimal additional burden on your part.

Ironically, if you translate your site into a non-western language such as Japanese or Chinese, you won't be able to view it on your computer unless you do one of the following:

  1. Use the operating system and version of Netscape written for that language (this is what your intended audience will be doing, automatically), or,
  2. On your western PC-compatible, use Navigate with an Accent, a browser which can read and display several exotic language character sets (but not translate them).

Most Web sites need to be localized (adapted to a new local market) or internationalized (adapted to the global market), tasks that go beyond translation to encompass marketing and general business issues. For example, if you are an American television set manufacturer (is there such a thing?) with a typical Web site advertising your product line, the U.S. market products need to be replaced with the product names, specifications and prices of the market you're translating to. That's localization.

On the other hand, if you run a bed-and-breakfast and want to translate your Web site for European and Japanese tourists who are browsing the Web before their trip to the United States, you should internationalize your site by adding the country code prefix to your phone number and some words of explanation regarding your meal plan for people who may be accustomed to different hotel practices in their country.

Remember that some languages, English for example, span many countries and markets. Your Web site will be available in all of these markets, whether you intended it to be or not. Unless you or your translator is aware of the local meanings of words, people may be laughing at your expense.

For example, the Spanish word coger means "to take" in Spain, while in South America it means "to take," but in the Biblical sense, if you catch our drift. Likewise, Americans who root for their home teams are doing something perfectly innocuous. Not so for Australians! If you are American, try to make heads or tails of this Australian pun:

Q: What does a Tasmanian devil do in the woods?
A: He eats, roots, shoots and leaves.

In the face of these perils, usually the best solution is to translate your Web site into a neutral international version of each target language, keeping a sharp eye posted for the well-known stumbling blocks. In our examples above, we would use Castilian Spanish and American English.

Finally, for creators of brand new Web sites, may we suggest that rather than roll out your site in 16 languages on its first day, that you publish it in your native language first, work out the bugs, then “freeze” it for translation? It's much easier to translate a site that has already been set in HTML with the attendant graphics, navigation bars and the like than it is to work with a pre-Web product and adapt it to the Web on the run. It is often a case of starting later in order to finish earlier.

Case Study: The Iliad (translation aficionados only)

To translate Homer's Iliad is to bridge the cultural gulf between the cradle of western civilization and modern America, 27 centuries later. In this case study we will read three translations of a passage from the Iliad: two by humans and one by computer.

Let's begin with a translation in verse by Robert Fagles of the scene in which Helen apologizes to her brother Hector for having been the cause of the Trojan War:

Hector, helmet flashing,
answered nothing. And Helen spoke to him now,
her soft voice welling up: “My dear brother,
dear to me, bitch that I am, vicious, scheming --
horror to freeze the heart! Oh how I wish
that first day my mother brought me into the light
some black whirlwind had rushed me out to the mountains
or into the surf where the roaring breakers crash and drag
and the waves had swept me off before all this had happened!


The Iliad's language was artificial and poetic, full of archaic expressions and metric work-arounds that had accumulated over the generations of the poem's oral reciting. Fagles preserved the majesty (and the difficulty) of Homer's language while leavening it with his American syntax. We hear our voice when Helen slides from the poetic “...dear to me” to the unadorned “...bitch that I am,” and again in the plunge from the glorious “... roaring breakers crash and drag” to Helen's dismissal of history's first Great War as: “...before all this had happened.”

Fagles the translator is both a time voyager and an inter-cultural messenger. In his preface, an inspiration for any translator, he writes:

Obviously at a far remove from Homer, in this translation I have tried to find a middle ground (and not a no man's land, if I can help it) between the features of Homer's performance and the expectations of a contemporary reader. Not a line-for-line translation, my version of the Iliad is, I hope, neither so literal in rendering Homer's language as to cramp and distort my own -- though I want to convey as much of what he says as possible, -- nor so literary as to brake his energy, his forward drive -- though I want my work to be literate, with any luck. For the more literal approach would seem too little English, and the more literary seems too little Greek. I have tried to find a cross between the two, a modern English Homer.

[The Iliad, Homer. Robert Fagles, trans., 1990, p. x]

To show how two excellent translations can differ depending upon the reader's culture (even in the same language), let's compare Fagles with Samuel Butler's translation, which we found on the Internet at the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University: gopher://gopher.vt.edu:10010/02/99/1.

Hector made no answer, but Helen tried to soothe him. "Brother," said she, "to my abhorred and sinful self, would that a whirlwind had caught me up on the day my mother brought me forth, and had borne me to some mountain or to the waves of the roaring sea that should have swept me away ere this mischief had come about.

Judging from his syntax, Butler was a 19th century English scholar. He translated the poem into prose, shortening it but losing much of the rhythm that Fagles captured. For example, Butler deleted “helmet flashing” from the first line. He didn't need the epithet to complete any poetic meter, whereas Fagles did find the epithet useful to finish the half-line which opens the passage, just as the ancient oral bards did when they recited the poem.

There is more to it than that. The “helmet flashing” epithet, so famously Hector's, serves the same metaphorical purpose that the Trump Tower does for Donald Trump. In each case the metaphor captures the essence of its man, making his rise to the top all the more incandescent and his fall all the more pathetic. As Fagles wrote of the helmet, “I like to ally its gleaming with his actions, now nodding his head in conversation, now rushing headlong into the front lines...The more the epithet recurs, in short, the more its power can recoil.” [Op. cit. p. xi]

A close reading of this passage shows that translators interpret their text not once but twice: first when they read the original, and second when they write the translation. The job of a translation agency is to select and cultivate a pool of seasoned translators who have the range to create and deliver these intercultural messages on a variety of topics to a variety of audiences, in a variety of languages.

Since this is an article about Web site translation you might ask: Why not let a computer do the job? Let's be a little unfair and test what we believe is the best machine translation program in the world with our Iliad passage. We submitted a Spanish translation of the passage to Systran, Inc.'s machine translation program at their free demonstration page at http://systranmt.com/. (Systran's machine would not accept the true original version in Ancient Greek.) Following is the “original” we chose:

Dijo. Y Héctor, el del rutilante casco, nada contestó. Fué Helena quien le dirigió estas dulces palabras:

-- ¡Pobre cuñado mio, de esta perra maléfica y abominable! ¡Ah! ¿Por qué en el día que me alumbró mi madre no se apoderó de mí un viento tempestuoso y me llevó sobre una montaña, o por qué una ola del embravecido mar no me arrebató antes que tales hechos ocurrieran?

[Montserrat Casamada, 1959.]

And here is the English translation, by Systran's computer:

Dijo. and Héctor, the one of the rutilante helmet, nothing answered. Fué Helena that directed these sweet words to him:

- Poor brother-in-law mio, of this maleficent and abominable dog! Ah! Why in the day that illuminated to me my mother did not seize of me a stormy wind and she took to me on a mountain, or why a wave of the enraged sea did not snatch to me before such facts happened?

[Systran, Inc., 1996.]

While the good people at Systran would never recommend their program for the unsupervised translation of epic poetry, the results are nevertheless fascinating. In fact, we happen to like the program's choice of “enraged” to describe the sea's state when it found the baby Helen bobbing in the surf. But the translation is far from a completed product ready to be published on the Web or anywhere else. True, it can help a non-Spanish speaker understand the gist of a passage, but the passage loses impact and accuracy in the process.

Successful machine translation remains the Holy Grail of the linguistics and computer science fields. It embodies the struggle of man vs. machine, for even bigger stakes than the Kasparov vs. Big Blue chess matches. Developments in the field have led to a deeper understanding of human cognition itself. But in the translation game as opposed to chess, we humans are winning hands down and likely will continue to win for years to come. While machine translation may be appropriate for some uses, the creation of Web pages is not yet one of them.

# # # # #

Weblations logo

Weblations was formed in 1996 to translate Web sites -- only Web sites. Its business methods, technologies and skills are specifically designed to serve a market that it is helping to define and develop through articles such as the above. Robert Hopkins, Jr. is the President of Weblations and can be reached at rhopkins@weblations.com.

Comments are welcome

Copyright © 1996 Robert Hopkins and
Revised: Dec. 20, 1996

URL: http://webreference.com/content/translate/