Lost in translation: the challenge of delivering web content in many languages

Sooner or later every international recruiter has to address an important communications challenge: to what extent do you translate your website (or other online communications) into the language of your target audiences?

English may be the lingua franca of the Internet but persistent questions swirl around the issue of translation (or “localisation” in a web context):

  • Is there a competitive advantage to be had from translating some or all of our website content into one or more languages?
  • Would it make a difference with respect to search engine optimisation (SEO) for key target markets?
  • Would it help us to reach non-student audiences, especially parents or other family members who have an important role to play in study abroad decisions?

At first glance, it may seem like the ready solution is to invest in a full-fledged site translation project targeting priority markets. But as so many institutions can attest to, the feasibility of this rapidly falls away when its complexity begins to reveal itself. Just for starters, there are the issues of:

  • How do we deal with the sheer size and scope of larger institutional websites?
  • How many languages should we tackle?
  • How flexible is the site’s design and how good is its file management system?
  • How much is the institution prepared to invest in data management and SEO for each target market?

This ICEF Monitor article looks at smart ways to ensure your institution is reaching out to students (and their parents) in their own language without going down a full website translation path.

But before we kick off, here’s a fun interactive map revealing Internet usage in most countries around the world as of 2011, which should help you in prioritising your target markets:


Source: The Telegraph

English can make it part of the way, but not all of the way

English remains the main language of the Internet and of global e-commerce and culture. In 2011, as the interactive chart below illustrates, English was the preference of 565 million users, in the top spot with Chinese trailing in second place at 510 million users and Spanish at 165 million users.

Because of English’s high degree of use and acceptance worldwide, good proportions of those who prefer to speak in Chinese and Spanish (or other languages) will be able to understand English to a certain extent.

This isn’t to say that those with English as a second language wouldn’t rather have institutions translate their websites to their native tongues. In fact, a recent Eurobarometer survey found that 90% of EU Internet users prefer to use sites in their own language.

But in most countries, students will make do (i.e., they will not abandon the website) if an institution installs an automated language translation tool, such as Google Translate, on their site so they can better understand tricky words or passages.

Google Translate, which it is thought by many to be the best online language translator, is far from infallible: As Redline Language Services points out, “When it encounters a word or phrase for which it lacks a sufficient number of translations, Google Translate may not produce the best translation, and may output a translation that is unnatural or simply wrong.”

But Google Translate is fast, free, and more accurate than many other language translators, so if you’re going down this road, here’s a post showing you how to incorporate it on a website. That said, Google Translate is by no means the only option available (for example, this reviewer also liked Bing for Spanish translation) so do conduct some research for the best fit for your institution.

Beyond the online language translator

An online translator is a good first step, but it is not likely as far as an internationally minded education institution is going to want to go. The Eurobarometer study cited above clearly indicates that non-English Internet users appreciate as much content as possible in their native tongue.

The next steps, if you are not going to translate an entire site into various languages, revolve around important strategic questions:

  1. Which international markets are the top priorities? Where are most international students coming from now, and where does the institution want them to come from in the future?
  2. Which content is the most important for translation – both in terms of the necessity of students understanding it and the optics of the endeavour (e.g., the wish to project a warm, culturally inviting image)?
  3. Which methods are best for conveying the chosen content?
  4. What needs to be done for SEO so that content intended for certain markets gets found there?

Question 1: Target markets

Regarding the first question, if your institution is like many, Chinese students are going to figure in the mix of target markets. And there are compelling supplemental reasons to translate some content into Chinese:

  • The cloud-based translation management company Smartling created an infographic out of available industry statistics that shows that Chinese will replace English very soon – possibly in the next couple of years. Its infographic shows that China added more Internet users in the past three years than those who exist in the US, and that English (27%) leads Chinese (24%) by only 3% in terms of the language of all content online.
  • Many Chinese students will require language upgrading before beginning academic studies abroad: Zinch China (a consulting firm that advises American schools on China) conducted a study among 18,000 prospective Chinese students and found that one-third of respondents “didn’t speak English well enough to function in an American classroom.”

The Zinch study contained a smart piece of recruitment advice for institutions wanting to target Chinese students. Tom Melcher, Zinch China’s chairman, recommends:

“Have current Chinese students make videos about their college experience, in Chinese. Chinese students frequently turn to their peers for guidance in the admissions process, and for assurance that an institution will be a good fit.”

Such video would not only find an easy home on the institutional website – it could also be communicated via email, FaceBook, Twitter, Renren, WeChat, and Weibo (see here for an update on social media platforms popular in China and other social media platforms used, and here for our previous article on using regional social media in recruitment).

And, of course, video could be made by current students of other target markets for dissemination there (e.g., Spanish for Latin American markets, etc.).

If you are interested in how various languages are growing on the Internet, please click here.

Interesting fact: Arabic (+2,501.2%), Russian (+1,825.8%) and Chinese (+1,478.7%) recorded the biggest growth rates on the Internet of all languages between 2000 and 2011 according to Internet World Stats.

Question 2: Which content to translate?

A recent post on the European Association for International Education (EAIE) blog proposes three options for localising website content.

  • An “institutional snapshot”: This is basically a one-pager (or a little longer) that summarises the key features and benefits – for a specific target market – of the institution. Remember, the snapshot should not simply be well translated, in terms of language, for various markets. It should be adjusted to suit the different profiles and cultures of each market. For example, Malaysian students may have different motives for choosing to study abroad, a particular country, and a particular institution, than Chinese.
  • An admissions- and documents-focused strategy: Given the frustrations inherent for both institutions and students in the applications process (e.g., incomplete information, or even language confusion so serious that the process is abandoned), it can make sense to focus on translating admissions-related documents incredibly well. A complementary initiative will prioritise admissions-based help resources (e.g., Skype and web chats as well). The EAIE uses the Manchester Metropolitan University as an example of a well-done strategy here.
  • A warm and welcoming focus: The EAIE highlights the University of Alberta for this one, which includes pages featuring facts about students and alumni from certain regions, video content, university research related to that country, activities to feel closer to home, and much more.

Question 3: Which methods are the best for communicating translated content?

Earlier in the article, we highlighted Mr Melcher’s suggestion to enable current students to make videos explaining the benefits of the institution to prospective students in their own countries. This is a fantastic idea, especially as it also respects the fact that students are heavily influenced by their peers. Furthermore, genuine videos like this are a great recruitment tool for parents whose language skills might not be as sharp as their children’s.

Related to this is leveraging the power of images in international student recruitment.

In the absence of a fully translated site, great photos can communicate messages that words cannot – but remember as well the cultural sensitivities and profiles of your target markets. If the Middle East is a target market, for example, images will have to be carefully chosen to avoid overly “sexy” connotations. (More fundamentally, the institution will have to adapt its actual campus environment to respect the selection of this market.)

Question 4: What should be done regarding SEO?

With online search a major factor in students’ discovery and choice of educational institution, and SEO techniques evolving daily, it’s no wonder why one of our most popular articles to date is “SEO: Why it’s so important in student recruitment and 10 simple tips to get started.”

But as we touch upon in that piece, localisation and SEO translation are entirely different projects. The website SEO Translator further explains:

  • Localisation: “translating your web pages for a different culture, meaning human beings that live in a different society.”
  • SEO translation: making sure “keywords, expressions, titles, tags, anchor texts, script messages, and every single attribute on a web page are translated so as to make the page attractive for the search engines in the target language.”

SEO translator underlines the importance of asking whomever you task with translating language and culture aspects of your content whether they are very skilled at SEO translation as well. Some may be, but many are not.

In this case, SEO Translator advises that it can be worth the expense to hire an SEO specialist in the target language to optimise the translated pages. If you are going to the trouble of translating content, you’ll want students to find it.

On that note, don’t forget to see our previous article on the importance of SEO optimisation to the goal of nudging students along the conversion path.

The right strategy

Like most other aspects of web strategy, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to website localisation. As we have outlined here, there are certainly some best practices and key considerations that can be widely applied. But every marketer and web manager will need to find their way to the solution that works best for their website, target audiences, business goals, and technical and budget resources.



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5 thoughts on “Lost in translation: the challenge of delivering web content in many languages

  1. Remember that Google translate and other machine translation technologies, though providing an inexpensive solution, will provide a mostly context irrelevant translation. A school or agent’s website is a marketing tool, the style and voice representative of the company’s brand, so a literal translation is unlikely to a true representation. So it’s a balance with how much you want to spend and what brand perception you want to encourage. Put yourself in your users shoes: How would you feel if you were buying something online internationally and it was available from 2 sites, one which was written in a quality and style which you are accustomed to and one which had bad spellings, grammatical errors and confusing or misused words. For a highly commoditized service with similar pricing which one would you pick? If you’re serious about translation and localization I’d recommend checking our new services like Smartling and Reverbeo

  2. Pingback: Reaching prospects by email and boosting open rates | ICEF Monitor - Market intelligence for international student recruitmentICEF Monitor – Market intelligence for international student recruitment

  3. Pingback: When You Are Considering Hiring a Professional Translation Service Part 2 - Simpletranslation Blog

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  5. Pingback: The business case for translating your website - ICEF Monitor - Market intelligence for international student recruitment

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