The Smart Guide to Selecting Languages for Localization
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The Smart Guide to Selecting Languages for Localization

Globalization strategies are the topic du jour of most corporate board rooms. Yet the pressure to enter many new markets simultaneously is the easiest way to derail your efforts to build a scalable global foundation.

In the rush to “go to market,” mistakes are made, investments are not justified, and returns are not realized, creating frustration for senior management teams and institutional investors. Our advice? Go global in stages, especially if you are starting out with localization.

A proper localization strategy begins with defining target languages. So, what does language selection for translation involve and why is it important to get it right? According to Ben Sargent of Common Sense Advisory, language selection actually depends on market selection: “Each decision to invest in a language is part of a complex decision about entering a new market or increasing support for an existing one.”

It’s important to select the right languages so that you use your resources more efficiently to launch products in target markets on time and satisfy internal stakeholders as well as customers.

Here are a few quick tips to determine which languages you should translate into first:

  • Stronger languages first. Choose the languages with a strong national or regional presence first. If you’re entering Asia, you cannot go wrong if you select the traditional high-demand languages like Chinese, Japanese, and Korean (CJK). Yes, there are tons of other languages whose economic potential is on the rise like Vietnamese, Malay, Thai, Hindi, and so on, but they can be accommodated in later stages of a developing localization strategy.
  • Check online activity for long-tail languages. When choosing which long-tail languages to support, one of the approaches is to check Wikipedia for the number of articles it supports in that particular language. More than 100,000 articles in a particular language indicates significant online activity by the speakers of that language. Also consider other forms of support that have grown around a language. For instance, is Google supporting it? Has Microsoft released product versions in that language?Wikipedia_Languages
  • Dialect or language? Distinguish between customer acquisition and customer satisfaction, and prioritize accordingly. Support for popular local dialects could come after you have established yourself in the market’s primary language(s).
  • Get smart. Study your website analytics to determine which international regions are sending you the most traffic. Corroborate this data with intelligence you collect from within your company: from the sales and customer service departments. Are prospects and clients increasingly coming from the same regions where you’re seeing a lot of activity online? Then, those definitely need your attention first and foremost.
  • Snoop on competitors. See which languages they’re supporting online in your target country or region and try to understand their rationale behind choosing or not choosing a language. However, don’t take them too seriously. If they aren’t yet supporting a language, chances are they’re probably working on it right now. Or, it may be a gap in their coverage—something that you must take advantage of. At the same time, if they’re supporting a language, try to find out how it’s being received by the people in the local market and how the company’s sales performed before and after the translation. Your company’s priorities and market strategy may not be the same as your competitors’. So, use this only as supporting data, but not a critical element to base your decision on.
  • Listen keenly. Use social media to monitor what your international customers want. Are they looking for in-language after-sales support or do they want a locally accepted form of payment more urgently? And, be sure to listen in their languages, that is, hang out at the localized versions of social media meant for their country or region.
  • Listen to your vendor. No, this is not a plug for our services, but translation companies have languages for breakfast. They are the best subject matter experts that can be out there — take advantage of their knowledge. A translation company that thinks like your partner and not a mere vendor will often tell you which languages you shouldn’t be investing in at the moment.
  • Can’t beat the system. You will need to completely ignore all the advice I have just given if you operate in a highly regulated vertical like medical devices or finance and are planning to enter the European Union’s market, where you may be required to translate in all their official languages.

If you can manage it, don’t try to enter more than five or six markets at once, so that language selection will be easier. Resist the temptation to spread yourself thin.

How did you select the languages for translation at your company? Tell us in your comments.

Watch this space next week where we’ll talk of which content types to prioritize, but if you can’t wait till then, download our eBook How to Jumpstart Global Revenues with Localization. It includes actionable advice on many other steps you need to take to set up localization as a revenue-enabler.