World's wide Web needs to speak its languages
October 26, 1998
by Jackie Cohen and Jacob Ward
(IDG) -- Nippon Telegraph and Telephone had a problem. Japan's national phone company needed to use the Web to reach speakers of some of the world's most complicated languages. Thanks to translation software from Honolulu-based WorldPoint, NTT found a way to translate its site - a partnership with the nonprofit Asian Multimedia Forum - into nine languages in only 72 hours.
NTT staff entered new content in English, and Worldpoint's Passport software automatically e-mailed the text to a network of translators who converted it into Japanese, Korean, Thai, Malay, Tagalog, Vietnamese, Indonesian and two dialects of Chinese. The translators then published the content back on the site.
Before such solutions, Web site translation was a real pain in the neck, as one veteran recalls. "You'd produce a product brochure in English. Then six months or a year later, their distributors would start from scratch with a local designer, and lay out something entirely different," says Philip Onigman, director of marketing communications at Millipore, a water filtration company in Bedford, Mass., that sought out Web translation services recently.
Millipore translated its site into five Asian and European languages, using services supplied by Direct Language Communications, a San Francisco-based language service company that recently merged with International Communications of Framingham, Mass. DLC not only translated the company's online catalog, but also worked with Millipore to create an Oracle database and a connected intranet that had Asian and European languages plugged into the core.
This multilingualism lets Millipore leverage information globally. "The immediate benefit is the alignment of an international company," says Onigman.
To achieve these benefits, Millipore paid DLC $220,000 to translate 100,000 words into five languages. It's still too early for Millipore to say whether the polyglot play is helping the company sell more water filters in Beijing or Monaco. But "perhaps in two years, the statistics will be more meaningful," says Onigman. "Today they're not Ð just 10 to 15 percent of our Web traffic is non-English speakers."
But the Web site may catch up with Millipore's brick-and-mortar business. Just 35 percent of the company's sales are in North America. Thirty percent are in Europe, another 30 percent are in Asia-Pacific and three percent are in Africa. That's a lot of potential Web visitors ready for action.
In fact, a rising number of hits to Web sites are coming from folks whose native tongue is not English. Only half of all Internet users surfed from U.S. shores in 1997, out of a total of 68.7 million online that year, says International Data Corp. But the scales will likely tip. Only a third of the online population will hail from the U.S. in 2002. Of 319.8 million people online that year, 82 million will come from Western Europe, 58.9 million from Asia-Pacific and 43 million from other locales.
With virtual borders being crossed so quickly, it's no surprise that businesses are increasingly looking to offer Web sites in many languages. The global language-translation market on the Web is expected to grow from $10.3 billion in 1998 to $17.3 billion by 2003, according to a recent study by Allied Business Intelligence, a telecommunications consulting firm in Oyster Bay, N.Y.
ABI determined that a company with a Web site translated into German, Spanish, Japanese, French, Italian, Portuguese and English can reach 93 percent of the online population.
Here's how: "People will go to their local Web [portal] site and fire up a search in their native language," explains Jim Lewis, VP of worldwide translation at Berlitz. "If you translate your site, then the local search engines will find it. Then you can generate more traffic."
Berlitz Interactive Group, Bowne Global Solutions, WorldPoint and International Communications are among the translation firms helping the business world reach the masses. "In the future, translation will be like global management Ð there will be three or four big companies controlling the industry," says Steven Fingerhood, chairman and CEO of International Communications.
With only a few dozen clients between them, International Communications, based in Framingham, Mass., and WorldPoint are recent entrants into the Web site translation market. But Bowne and Berlitz, which have decades-old relationships with a long list of clients for face-to-face translation services, are poised to be the heavy hitters on the Web.
The translation business is divided into three main areas: translation, or converting text into another language; localization, which is ensuring that a company's message is neither awkward nor offensive in another culture; and internationalization, or building the ability to switch language delivery on the fly into the core of a site or product in order to minimize later modifications. Another technique is to translate Web pages and store them in memory for future use.
Any way you slice it, translation alone is a painstaking process. A single freelance translator is capable of translating only 2,000 words per day, on average, and so far no company has been able to make machine rendered translation reliable enough for most users. Not that no one is trying. Yahoo launched its Spanish-language Web site at the end of June, basing much of it on automated machine translation. And Infoseek's new multilanguage site is based on technology from the French machine translation company Systran.
But Infoseek insists that its machine-translated site works well. "The Internet is supposed to make people's lives easier, but it's a struggle if they have to figure out the language. So we're making it simpler for them," says John Kirtland, Infoseek's director of international business development in Sunnyvale, Calif. The portal first went multilingual in 1996 and now hosts subsites in German, French, Spanish, Italian, Dutch, Portuguese, Danish and Japanese.
An even happier Systran customer is AltaVista, which replies to queries in 25 different languages. Each day, half a million people talk polyglot with AltaVista, for whom spurts in traffic can raise advertising revenues significantly. The search engine invites people to enter phrases in one of five languages and in the process learn how to say them in another tongue. Roughly half of these visitors seek to have English translated into another language, while the other half want foreign languages rendered in English.
The translation is not only free to consumers but free to AltaVista, which doesn't pay a penny for Systran's services. Rather, the two share revenues on various translation capabilities that have been hosted on AltaVista for the past 10 months. Even so, "this was not introduced as a big revenue generator, but as a value-add," says Louis Monier, technical director at AltaVista in San Mateo, Calif. "The way we measure its success is user feedback, which is exceedingly positive. They literally say, 'Wow!'"
While some sites are oohing and aahing, others still haven't delivered on their multilingual promises. In October 1997, The Los Angeles Times trumpeted a partnership with Alis Translation Solutions Ð makers of server-side, on-the-fly translation software Ð but the site's auto-Spanish areas have been pulled for more "testing," company officials say.
"Machine translation is about where self-steering automobiles are," sniffs Bjorn Austraadt, software localization specialist and co-Webmaster at Berlitz. "On a certain track, with a certain car, in certain weather, it works. But I went to a machine-translated site the other day, which did a very literal translation of avionics equipment text into something about hot lingerie."
Still, most vendors believe that automation will eventually strike the right balance between the speed of machine translation and the reliability of human translation.
Yet another alternative is to simply seek out a stall within an established Web mall that serves the foreign country you're trying to reach. This tactic enabled Telebank, a virtual bank headquartered in Arlington, Va., to enter China this month. With 45,000 customers in the U.S., Telebank teamed up with Chinese Cyber City, a Chinese portal with 850,000 visitors per month. Chinese Cyber City cooked up a Chinese version of Telebank, which offers Western comforts that it expects the masses will crave, given China's economic uncertainties. Whatever the motivation, multilingual sites are hot, and translation companies expect to be busy. Current demand for their services is so great that Bowne and Berlitz often work for the same companies, but have never worked together on a project. And even though International Communications and WorldPoint offer similar services in the same city, they have never bid against each other for a job. With a market that could be as large as the Internet itself, there is likely to be plenty of work for years to come.
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