Adding new foreign markets is a cost-effective way to expand during the COVID-19 crisis. But translating marketing and sales language is more art than science.

Ofer Tirosh, founder and CEO of Tomedes

Internet retailers are fortunate to escape restrictions on their brick-and-mortar cousins. Given the slowdown in economies generally, however, there still is an urgent need to optimize online business. Perhaps the most cost-effective way to expand during the current coronavirus crisis is to add new foreign markets. 

This optimization falls into the category of customer acquisition: getting new buyers of your online products and services. Aside from acquisition, it is also essential to improve the retention of existing ecommerce customers. You can reach millions of new customers for the relatively small incremental cost of localizing—translating the language and adapting numerical formatting.

Developing additional markets is not just a technical matter or even a linguistic one. It’s about feelings: connecting emotionally with new customers. Creating emotional connections is a broad topic and one that should always be part of your considerations. But you can’t connect with customers unless you speak their language. 

What is localization and how does it differ from translation?

The global language services industry was estimated at $49.6 billion in 2019 and expected to grow to $55.2 billion by 2021. Language services cover a lot of ground, but the lion’s share is translation and localization. While the terms are sometimes used interchangeably, with translation companies offering localization and localization agencies providing translation, the distinctions are important for the online retailer.

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Localization generally covers all the steps to adapt services and communications from one location to another. Often it refers to adaptations across national or linguistic borders. Localization–or localization outside the United States–covers more than language changes. It includes changes in number and date formats, measurement and currency units. More importantly, it also accounts for cultural differences between locale and another. 

Localization is a technical function, done mainly with software and development resources. Specialized localization and translation management software can adapt a website or ecommerce platform to support various locations. Retailers also should involve marketing and communications experts to ensure that the way they address foreign-language audience is persuasive, not offensive.

Beyond the technical nuances, translation services are where the retailers invest the lion’s share of localization efforts. There are plenty of APIs and software protocols for replacing phrases and sentences that appear on the screen of your application. However, it requires no great expertise to swap out technical terms from one language to the other. The real challenge comes when translating the marketing and sales language. Getting that right is more art than science. It requires a human touch.

Language and localization issues cut across the full range of online retail operations: from the supply chain, to store management, to marketing and sales on the web or in apps. It needs to cover customer and prospect communications and product documentation. If you are dealing with adding a single language, the task is not monumental. 

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The freelance translation and localization option

If your budget is severely constrained (and whose isn’t these days?), it’s worth considering the freelance option for single language translation and localization. You can find plenty of linguists looking for work on marketplace platforms like Upwork and Freelancer.com. When you use these web services, you can either post your job or pro-actively search for freelancers. Search for those who specialize in the desire language pair and direction (e.g., English to Spanish or Spanish to English) and any special domain expertise (e.g., legal, medical, or a particular commerce specialty). You’ll be able to see ratings and rates and read reviews of candidate freelancers.

Per-word rates are typical for translation services. The minimum per-word translation rate in the U.S., according to the American Translators Association, is $0.12. But the price will vary significantly according to language pair and direction, experience, the volume of work and deadline. Freelance marketplaces allow for negotiation, so whittle candidates down to a short-list, then negotiate. If you are looking for someone to assist in localization, not just translation, you’ll pay more.

Freelancers have the disadvantages of being a one-person-shop: They get sick and they get busy. They are difficult to hold accountable. It’s a good idea to hire freelancers in pairs, so one can check the work of the other and serve as a backup.

Localization companies and translation agencies as options

If you intend to deal with more than one additional language, it’s a good idea to work with a professional agency. Translation agencies and localization companies have the depth to handle multiple languages. They have at their beck and call a network of expert linguists. So they can move quickly and provide a higher level of accountability in staying within budget and keeping deadlines.

Instead of needing to manage freelance translators individually, agencies would assign an account manager who would serve as a one-stop liaison with all the various language and technical teams required to adds languages to your ecommerce site into multiple languages. Sure, you’ll pay a premium for that additional service level, but opening a new market is likely to justify that. 

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The other big benefit of working with a localization agency is the strategic guidance and experience you are likely to receive, often without additional charge. When you are vetting candidate agencies for a job, engage them in conversation about localization strategy. To get your business, they will be inclined to show their value-added, and you should judge them accordingly.

If you have the budget and want to cover all bases, your best bet is to hire an agency. But also hire an expert-level linguist and localizer as a freelancer for each chosen language to provide quality assurance and a second opinion on the linguistic correctness of your website or ecommerce shop in various languages.

Tomedes, a professional language service provider specializing in translation and localization.

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