Reaching A Global Audience On A Startup Budget

This article outlines some inexpensive and straightforward things you can do to make your company and products accessible to a multilingual audience. This used to be a difficult and expensive undertaking, but thanks to a plethora of new translation services and technologies, that’s no longer the case. It’s important to be prepared to go multilingual, because when the time is right, doing so will expand your reach several fold.

Most companies I talk to, especially startups operating on a budget, defer decisions about translating their website and applications until a future release. By the time they are ready to support multiple languages, they have often baked bad habits into their code base, picked a content management system that doesn’t support translation, and made other common mistakes. A few simple steps will help you avoid these pitfalls.

The first step is to set up a translation/localization management system. This is used to manage your inventory of human readable texts (e.g. elements of your website, application prompts, static documents, etc), not unlike the way you use a source code repository to manage your code base. TMS platforms used to be expensive enterprise applications, but now there are cloud based TMS services with low cost entry points. Transifex and Smartling are two candidates. These systems keep track of your inventory of prompts, access rights for translators and reviewers, and translation progress among other things.

It’s also important that your developers store human readable texts in separate prompt catalogs, and include comments to explain the context in which they are used (something everyone should do regardless).

Even if you don’t plan to go multilingual in the near future, using a TMS will enable your less technical employees to manage human readable texts without ever touching your code base, and to work in parallel to fine tune what the user sees, while your engineers focus on features and reliability. In the process of doing this, your team will be rehearsing tasks you’ll use when you are ready to support multiple languages.

By supporting a handful of widely spoken languages, you can triple or quadruple your reach. The top languages in terms of population are English, Chinese, Spanish, Portuguese, French and Arabic.

The cost of doing the translation work will depend on whether you have bilingual staff or trusted users. I generally tell companies to expect to pay $0.10 to $0.15 per word for non-specialist translation work (never use machine translation to localize an app except to preview your layout/UI in another language). If you need to translate highly technical terminology, the cost will be higher. If you can leverage bilingual staff or trusted users, you can reduce the cost of translation. One option that’s especially interesting if you have a lot of text to translate is to use a highly automated translation agency to bulk translate your texts. Gengo, headquartered in Tokyo, has a network of thousands of professional translators that’s accessed via a web service API. In fact, they are integrated with Transifex, Transfluent and other localization services that enable users to order bulk translations in one transaction. One Hour Translations, Straker Translations and a number of other vendors offer professional translation via an API.

A typical workflow with a TMS looks like this:

  1. Use machine translation to preview your app or site in translation. Do NOT use this for production. However, its a useful way to see how the difference in word length between languages can impact your UI, so you can fix layout issues before paying for human translators.

  2. Order bulk translations through your localization/translation management system. This is typically completed within 24 hours (cost 5 to 15 cents/word, depending on quality level selected).

  3. Have bilingual staff, trusted users or an outside translation agency log in to your TMS to review and post-edit the bulk translations.

  4. Once completed, release beta versions of your service in the new languages, while providing a way for users to provide feedback, so you can catch any remaining issues.

This approach will enable you to release and maintain your app or web service in multiple languages. If you are careful to minimize the amount of human readable text used in your application, the cost to localize can be surprisingly low.

Ironically, translating your company website, which is probably hosted on a content management system like Word Press, can be more difficult than translating your web/mobile app. This is because most CMSs deal with multiple languages and translation rather poorly. A few (e.g. Drupal) support multilingual content, but are known for being difficult to work with.

This is where a translation delivery network is useful. A TDN works like a proxy server and inserts translations into pages as they are dynamically served. For example, you map the domain to the TDN, which in turn pulls content from to translate the page on the fly. Several vendors, including Smartling and Motion Point, offer this type of service. This option works well for document oriented websites (e.g. company home page, FAQs, support forums, etc). These systems also allow you to combine machine, user/crowd and professional translation to optimize for speed, quality and cost, and are good at dealing with dynamic content where pages change incrementally.

If your company and app are accessible in multiple languages, you’ll probably want to provide similar levels of customer support via support forums and email. Several services also enable you to do this. Helsinki based Transfluent offers a professional translation plug in for Zendesk, so you can provide customer support in dozens of languages. The service machine translates incoming messages (only your staff see the machine translation, and can order professional translation if needed). Replies back to the customer are professionally translated. They also offer similar options for WordPress, Twitter and Facebook Pages. The German startup PostLingo offers a similar service for email translation.

By combining services from a handful of vendors, your company can operate globally, even if you’re a one man show. While there are a range of issues, such as country/locale specific localization, country specific websites and locally curated content, that are beyond the scope of this article, the steps above will enable you to reach half of the world population.

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