Traduttore Traditore

photo of John Michael Pierobon By: John Michael Pierobon

We live in a multilingual society. While English is the predominent language of business, science and technology, many of us need to conduct business in other languages because it is always best to speak the language of the customer. I speak in Portuguese with my Brazilian clients; in Spanish with my Mexican and Central American clients.

The World Wide Web allows local businesses to easily gain worldwide exposure. It opens doors to foreign markets. In recognition of this globalization, many companies are debating whether to translate their Web site and corporate literature. Buzzwords such as "internationalization" and "localization" and their abbreviations, "I18N" and "L10N", are spewed out during these debates.

Achieving internationalization and localization on the Web is much easier said than done. This article points out key factors that must be considered.

Those opposed to translating will argue that English is the most prevalent language of the Internet. True, but English is the mother tongue of a small minority of the human population, and as developing countries get wired up to the Internet, the percentage of English readers will decline.

To penetrate these foreign markets one must speak the customer's language. Some countries, by law, require manuals to be in their official language. Hence, translating manuals is often necessary in order to sell a product in a foreign market. Some languages represent bigger slices of the market, and this should set the priority of which languages to translate into.

Many international organizations spend a fortune to have stuff professionally translated. It has been my experience that these professional translators do a poor job. On several occasions I had to completely rewrite translations because of grammatical and contextual errors in the translation.

Explaining the context in which things are used, including giving the translator a product demonstration, helps to improve the accuracy of the translation. Unfortunately, this rarely happens because translation companies discourage communication between the client and the translator. They fear that communication back and forth between client and translator will cause the job to run over budget.

Why spend a fortune to have things translated incorrectly when you can get it translated incorrectly for free. Computers can translate much more quickly and cost effectively than human translators. If the general meaning of the text is all you need, then use one of the free translation sevices available on the Web. Here are a couple.

Babel Fish ( translates English into and from eight languages. It will translate text passages up to about forty sentences at a time. Babel Fish will also translate entire Web pages.

FreeTranslation ( translates English into and from six languages. It will let you insert accent marks and tildes into the text to be translated. Like Babel Fish, it will also translate entire Web pages. Both Babel Fish and FreeTranslation will be most accurate in their translations of Web documents that use standard grammar and language.

Brochures and Web pages must be translated correctly because readers will notice the spelling and grammatical mistakes, and not take the product or company seriously. These mistakes tell the reader you do not understand their language nor their culture.

Translating correctly is a challenge. A simple spelling error or conjugating a verb incorrectly can change the entire meaning of the message. Here are two simple examples.

Spanish has two different verbs, "ser" and "estar", for the English verb "to be". This can lead to "I am boring" instead of the intended meaning "I am bored".

Translating "I can fly" into Spanish could easily result in "Yo lata mosca" instead of the intended meaning "Yo puedo volar". "Yo" in Spanish translates to "I" in English, but "can" has several meanings. As a noun "can" translates to "lata". As a noun "fly" translates to "mosca". All three words individually translated are correct, but together in context, they make no sense.

Translating correctly into Spanish may not be enough. There are geographical differences to consider. Some words are only used in certain countries of Latin America. Ask a Mexican what is the Spanish word for "blonde". Then ask a Nicaraguan. Then ask a Chilean. You will get three different answers. Some words have different meaning in different countries. Ask a Venezuelan what "arrecho" means, and then ask a Peruvian. You will get two very different answers.

Translating into English may also not be enough. They do not play tic-tac-toe in England; they play naughts and crosses. I learned this as I was trying to explain to a British audience what we, in America, call a pound (#) sign.

Browsers may be configured to render documents in many different languages. To do this, three settings need to configured.

The language preferences setting lets the viewer indicate to the Web server in which language the document should be sent. There are many choices, including geographical choices such as British English (en-GB), American English (en-US), Canadian French (fr-CA), Brazilian Portuguese (pt-BR), etc. Sophisticated Web servers will read the language preference indicated by the browser, and deliver the document, if available, in the preferred language.

Another setting is the document encoding or character set. Most people have their browsers set to ISO-Latin which handles Western European languages. Other character sets exist, such as Korean, Arabic, Hebrew, etc.

The third setting is the choice of font. Here is where Web authors need to be very careful because they may specify a font face which is not available for the character set chosen by the browser. This causes the browser to render the document using illegible symbols.

The English language is extraordinarily terse. For example, the German equivalent of "Jet Black" is "Rabenschwarz"; the Spanish equivalent is "Negro Azabache".

The terseness of the English language can cause problems with the layout of Web pages and brochures because more space is needed to say the exact same thing. It also can cause memory and display problems on instrument panels of devices for the same reason.

Layout problems become more complex with languages such as Arabic, Hebrew, and Japanese. These languages write from right to left. Chinese and Japanese use thousands of symbols, so memory storage issues need to be considered for these languages. These added complications are why it is easier and cheaper to translate into other Western European languages.

Accuracy is by far the most important factor in translating documents. Cost, geography, memory space, page layout, and size of market also need to be considered when translating. Always ask one or more native speakers to proofread the translation, because just one mistake can betray a translation.

John Michael Pierobon is an Internet consultant based in Fort Lauderdale.
John Michael may be reached by sending electronic mail to

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