January 2018
By John Yunker

John Yunker is the co-founder of Byte Level Research and consults with many of the world’s leading global brands, providing web globalization training and benchmark services. He is the author of Think Outside the Country: A Guide to Going Global and Succeeding in the Translation Economy and the annual report The Web Globalization Report Card.

jyunker[at]bytelevel.com
www.bytelevel.com
Twitter @johnyunker

The new translation economy and how to succeed in it

The days in which "going global" simply meant launching a website are long gone. Organizations waiting for the world to speak their language are losing out – big time. So get busy speaking the world’s many languages.

In October 2017, Amazon celebrated an important holiday, though you might not have noticed it if you visited Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.de.

You would have noticed it if you visited Amazon.in – a celebration of the Hindu holiday of lights known as Diwali (see Image 1). Diwali is one of the busiest shopping seasons in India and an increasing percentage of that shopping has gone online. India added more than 100 million Internet users in 2016, more than any other country – to more than 450 million Internet users in all. In a world in which most large economies are growing at a glacial pace, India’s economy is booming. Image 1 shows what the Amazon India home page looked like for Diwali in 2016:

Image 1: Amazon.in during the Hindu holiday season of Diwali

 

Amazon has committed more than $3 billion to succeeding in India, and it still has much work to do. As you can see on the home page, Amazon supports only English. While English may be widely spoken throughout India, there are 22 official languages other than English, such as Hindi, Malayalam and Gujarati.

According to the 2017 Web Globalization Report Card, just 6 percent of the world’s leading brands currently support Hindi. Most global companies have done little so far to support Indian languages, largely hoping that English will suffice. But this is changing as Indian consumers seek out local-language content. According to research firm IDC, 46 percent of India’s Internet users primarily consume local-language content – more than 150 million people. Google and Facebook got the memo some time ago and now support a significant number of India’s official languages.

India is a lot like China was a decade ago, when few websites supported Chinese because many companies deemed the country too "emerging" to invest in translation. Today, nearly every website that purports to be global supports Simplified Chinese. And China is home to the busiest and richest day of online commerce on the planet: Singles Day, which takes place on November 11. Nearly US$18 billion was spent on this day in 2016. And Amazon is heavily invested in Singles Day as well, as shown in Image 2 from 2016.

Image 2: Amazon.cn on Singles Day


Amazon’s global expansion reflects a new era we have entered, one in which emerging markets are just as relevant as developed markets to companies that seek global success.

Today’s emerging economy is tomorrow’s developed economy.

And localization is an undervalued asset, one that companies have viewed for too long as a cost rather than a competitive advantage. I call this new era the translation economy, and it will redefine the winners and the losers in the decades to come.

From the information economy to the translation economy

The internet connected the world’s computers, and the digitization of content enabled the rapid flow of information around the world, which drove several decades of what came to be known as the information economy. But one of the great myths of the information economy – and the World Wide Web, for that matter – was the idea that a company could go global simply by launching a website. While the Internet connects computers, it is language that connects people, and the information economy has for too many years exhibited an English-language bias.

Based on my research, just 20 percent of all Internet users are native English speakers, a percentage that will continue to decrease as the next billion people come online. That’s not to say that English isn’t an important global language, but it is just one of many global languages.

Milestones in the translation economy

One of the first milestones of the translation economy occurred in 1996, when Yahoo!, the world’s leading search engine at the time, expanded into its first foreign market, Japan (in partnership with Softbank). Image 3 shows that homepage.


Image 3: Yahoo.co.jp at its first launch in 1996

 

Yahoo! triggered a virtual land rush as companies raced to expand their global reach. When Google first emerged two years later, it wasted little time localizing its search engine interface into more than 60 languages.

Another major milestone occurred in 2007, when Facebook began expanding from two languages to more than 74 languages in only two years, relying heavily on volunteer translators. Never before had a company added so many languages in such a rapid and public fashion.

But linguistic expansion as such was not unique to the tech sector. Image 4 reveals the extent to which global players have increased their global reach over the past 13 years.


Image 4: Global players are supporting an increasing number of languages.
Source: bytelevel.com

 

Over the past fifteen years studying the websites of the major global brands, the average number of languages supported has more than doubled to 31 languages. However, most websites support significantly fewer than 31 languages. This is why machine translation has been so popular among web users.

Machine translation helps power the translation economy

Just because your website supports ten or fewer languages doesn’t mean that visitors aren’t reading it in up to 100 languages. That’s because people have access to machine translation engines, most notably Google Translate.

Google Translate translates more than 100 billion words each day. If you assume that a web page includes roughly 100 words, then we’re talking about one billion web pages translated per day. Google Translate now supports more than 100 languages, effectively reaching more than 98 percent of all Internet users.

Facebook, Microsoft and Amazon are also investing heavily in machine translation and the quality continues to improve. While human translators are in no danger of losing their jobs anytime soon, machine translation has a critical role to play in democratizing content for the world. Besides, there are not nearly enough professional translators to translate 100 billion words per day. The greatest impact that machine translation has is raising the language expectations of all web users. And those companies that rise up to meet these language expectations are poised to lead in the years ahead.

How to succeed in the translation economy

The executives and companies that thrive in the translation economy are those who don’t look at translation as simply a cost but as an opportunity, who can imagine the day when their websites support a hundred or more languages. Here are a few tips to keep in mind as your company goes global.

Be flexible and fast

When you begin targeting new markets, the rules that applied to your home market often no longer apply. And I’m not simply referring to government regulations, but to cultural rules – formal and informal. Colors may carry different meanings, as may icons, clothing, and gestures. Going global requires flexibility and responsiveness; you need to adapt quickly to changing environments and national events.

Consider Thailand. The death of Thailand’s King Bhumibol Adulyadej in 2016 led to stores running out of black and white clothing as the population mourned its leader in color-appropriate clothing. Websites were also expected to show their respect quickly. Images 5 and 6 show the home pages of Apple and Nike shortly after the King’s death.


Image 5: The home page of Apple (www.apple.com/th/) …

 


Image 6: …and Nike (www.nike.com/th) shortly after the death of King Bhumibol Adulyadej.


Not all global companies responded equally fast. But those that did showed a degree of empathy and respect that was not lost on the public. And while switching the color palette of your website is hardly conventional website localization, it’s a sign of just how responsive you have to be when you do launch a local website. You can’t launch it and forget about it.

Look for opportunities everywhere

In the translation economy, you have a choice: You can wait for the world to speak your language, or you can get busy speaking its many languages. And those companies that have gotten busy speaking the languages of the world have clearly benefited – and sometimes in surprising ways.

Consider Facebook; its largest market, based on number of users, is India, followed by the U.S., Brazil, and Indonesia. And Twitter enjoys a higher percentage of users in countries such as Turkey, South Africa, and Japan than in its home market. A decade ago, an executive might have focused purely on developed markets when planning global expansion. But today, things are much more complex. And this phenomenon is not unique to U.S. companies.

Chinese tech company Huawei does not yet offer a localized website for seemingly important markets such as France or Germany, but does offer localized websites for countries such as Turkey, Brazil, Malaysia, and Russia.

Never stop asking questions

There is a widely held myth that to become a successful global executive you must be some sort of multilingual savant – one of those people who speaks half a dozen languages, carries a passport bulging with extra pages, and was seemingly born in an international departure lounge. The truth is that global success requires considerably fewer airline miles than you might think. Global success requires a simple desire to understand the world outside your own.  

The best global executives are those who aren’t afraid to ask questions or to rely on cultural and linguistic experts to help guide them. The globalization of any product and business is by nature a team effort. And there are experts all around us. We often work with colleagues from different parts of the world who might enjoy presenting their country to us during lunch hour as part of a "cultural insights" series. Localization vendors can also play a key role in training teams on cultures and languages. The more curious you and your colleagues are, the more empathetic you will be towards other people and cultures. Those of us who are more curious than intimidated by languages and cultures we may not understand are best positioned to succeed in this new translation economy.

Conclusion

Earlier this year, on July 11, Amazon celebrated Prime Day – its self-made shopping extravaganza. And, for the first time and certainly not the last, Amazon celebrated Prime Day in India.