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Vicky Nolan

Reaching a Broader Audience through Multilingual Interfaces

2 November 1999

The Internet has changed the world by revolutionizing the way we communicate globally, but it still hasn't completely hurdled all the complexities created by language barriers. Until those barriers are cleared, realizing your company's potential on the Internet means examining the pros and cons of making your product available to a multi-lingual audience.

Originally, the Internet was an American medium written almost exclusively in English, and the majority of Internet users still consists of American. According to StatMarket, however, nearly 44 percent of Internet usage is from countries besides the U.S. Of those other countries, Japan accounts for 23 percent, Germany 15.5 percent, the U.K. 6.6 percent and Canada nearly 5 percent. Australia and Italy trail with a little more than 4 percent each. Users from Sweden, France, The Netherlands and Switzerland account for less than 4 percent. China, meanwhile, has about 2 million users now with an estimated growth to 10 million users over the next two years.

The growth of Internet usage means a growing customer base. Many people outside the U.S., however, don't speak or read English. Of the several hundred gaming sites online, almost all are written in English with some portions of the sites translated into other languages.

Gaming sites have chosen three different paths in facing language barriers. The first group consists of sites written completely in English. Sites from the second group have splash pages and the lobby written in several languages. The third group is made up of sites that are thoroughly translated into a number of languages.

Bossmedia's Jonas Hollander said that translating his company's sites hasn't been a top priority. "Yes, most of our players speak English, but that may be because everything (at the Boss Media sites) is in English."

Hollander quoted a recent article in Wired Magazine that said 65 percent of "netizens" speak English, with the second most commonly used language, Japanese, at about 25 percent.

"There are also problems beyond having your site translated," he said. "You want to keep the information in all versions up-to-date, you want text and voice in the games in the right language and finally, with a site in a language, people expect support in that language. I'm not saying these obstacles are insurmountable or that we never will make localized versions of our games, but the problems may be bigger than you think at a first glance."

How do you go about translating your site into other languages? Joe Karam, an independent translation software writer, says it's relatively easy: Just modify existing programs and then have a native speaker who understands colloquialisms and commonusage of terms.

According to Richard Latham of Gateway Technology, Inc., about half of the company's licensees do their own translating. "The most commonly requested languages for translation are Chinese, German, Portuguese, French and Spanish," Latham said. He also suggested that hard coding is the way to go for best translation, and recommended "native speakers to translate 'localization'." Most Gateway sites are written in Java, and Gateway provides support for the code.

Grand Virtual offers complete translation and customer support in English, Spanish, German, Portuguese, French, Italian, Dutch, Swedish, Turkish, Chinese, Japanese and Korean. "We hired native tongue speakers," Marketing Director Steve Havran explained. "We wanted to reduce the friction by having it (the site) correctly translated and in the right context."

The company has programmers and marketing support people who speak the various languages. If someone in marketing doesn't speak the necessary language, then a technical person who does will help out. Havran added, "We found it effective to have marketers who have a more technical understanding. They have to explain according to the customers' level of understanding, so education is very big."

Havran says that English is the common language, especially in multi-player games between people of different nationalities. He believes that "if you are going to have a worldwide community with the Internet, you need to be more accommodating." According to Havran, substantially less than 50 percent of the players at Grand Virtual casinos play in English. Of course, that's partially because Grand Virtual casinos don't accept wagers from Americans. "The players like the fact that they can play in their own language, they're less likely to play if it's too much trouble to understand," he said.

He continued, "I look at costs beyond revenue… What are the opportunity costs if we don't translate?" As for whether the costs are greater to translate, he said, "I find it much more costly in the relatively short term. If you are forward thinking, you see you cannot afford not to look at the non-English speaking player."

At many sites, even those that are thoroughly translated, it's common to find popular games listed in English because the games have become so well known to people around the world. It's going to be a while, however, before the entire Web is so easily comprehended. Until then, it will remain a challenge keeping up with your customers' language needs.

Reaching a Broader Audience through Multilingual Interfaces is republished from
Vicky Nolan
Vicky Nolan