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Translation Versus Localization: Keys to International eCommerce Success

Jan 06, 2021

The coronavirus has had a profound impact on consumer behavior since the end of 2019. This past year, we’ve seen a dramatic increase in the number of online purchases worldwide as forced lockdowns and social distancing restrictions kept people at home. In the United States, for example, COVID-19 encouraged 63% of consumers to buy goods online that they had not considered before the pandemic, and for millennials, this figure rose to 75%.

Globally, 2020 eCommerce sales accounted for 17% ($3.9 trillion) of all retail sales worldwide — and that number is expected to more than double by 2027, in part due to the long-lasting impacts of social distancing around the world. One of those impacts has been an increase in cross-border online purchases — as it seems that while many people are still wary of entering physical stores, they show no apprehension about shopping online from businesses based outside their home country. Ultimately, many experts believe that pre-pandemic retail behaviors may never fully return, signifying the need for brick and mortar retail businesses around the globe to rethink and adapt their business models.

The role language plays in cross-border eCommerce

If you’re an American shopper purchasing textbooks from the UK, language won’t present a meaningful barrier. However, if you’re a Taiwanese shopper procuring clothing from an American retailer, a recent CSA Research report shows that language plays a much bigger role in purchasing decisions because 90% of Taiwanese online consumers prefer to shop on websites in their own language.

If your business plans to expand internationally, the ability to present your product or service to your target market in their native language must be a critical part of your expansion strategy. Translated content, however, must be treated with care. Anecdotes of poor translations – faulty to a laughable extent – are unfortunately all too prevalent in international business.

Successfully translating your online retail content

Successful translations will need to meet the target market’s expectations in two areas: function and culture. The functional content is easier to spot and deploy properly because it is logical rather than tradition-based. Examples include:

  • Date and time format (12/26/20 versus 26/12/20)
  • Telephone number format ((020) 123-4567 versus +4420 1234 567)
  • Weights and measurements (pounds vs. kilograms, cubic centimeters versus fluid ounces)
  • Currency (USD versus EUR)

The cultural aspect, however, is considerably more delicate. Successfully translated content must simultaneously meet cultural expectations while avoiding offense in relation to:

  • Images and icons
  • Humor
  • Etiquette
  • Values and beliefs
  • Traditions

For a non-native speaker, mistakes are sometimes painfully easy to make. How would a French company know that to a Chinese person, dressing a bride in white is a no-no because wearing white is associated with funerals? Unfortunately, it’s just as easy to make culturally-insensitive linguistic errors. Therefore, when you are marketing a product or service overseas, translation alone isn’t enough. The methodology required is localization.

Translations that didn’t fly (literally)

Airlines deliver some superb examples of the hazards of translation without localization. In 1987, for example, Braniff Airlines touted its planes’ all-leather seats with the slogan “Fly in Leather.” Its print, television and radio ads gave the image of a high-class airline until it translated “in leather” to “en cuero” in a Spanish-language radio ad for the Florida market. While “en cuero” does technically mean “in leather,” in Spanish slang, it means “naked”. “Flying naked” is not quite the slogan that Braniff had in mind.

Another US airline made a similar error. The airline had been promoting its posh “rendezvous lounges” on its 747s. The campaign was successful until the promotion reached Brazil where, unfortunately, the Portuguese connotation of “rendez-vous” means a room rented out for prostitution. The Brazilians, understandably, were reluctant to board a plane boasting such amenities.

Successful localization at its best

Coca-Cola is the world’s largest and most successful beverage company. One reason for that is that Coca-Cola does a great job of localizing their message. For example, when Australia’s Share-a-Coke campaign went global, Coca-Cola understandably had to change the 150 most popular names in Australia to the 150 most popular names in Denmark, Norway and the United Kingdom. Coke did their homework and in doing so, they recognized that localization sometimes goes beyond just the name changes. In China, for example, Coke bottles sported common nicknames like Classmate and Close Friend instead of first names due to the sheer volume of first name options. Instead, they selected nicknames and compliments popular on Chinese social media. This move proved a hit with Chinese youth and led to a significant spike in Coca-Cola sales in the Chinese market.

Think globally, act locally

Investing in translation and localization can help you reach global consumers, expand your market share overseas, and diversify by becoming less dependent on the US domestic market alone.

If you want to learn more about our professional localization services, contact us here.

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