Translating America

Former advertising executive Charlotte Beers, now undersecretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs, is launching a $10 million ad campaign that promotes America to the Arab world. Ads are airing on television and radio in the Middle East and Indonesia.

Ads, however, are fleeting. If we really want the Arab world to understand us a bit better, we need to invest in the translation of our major American Web sites.

For example, suppose Arabs in Saudi Arabia, after having seen one of those television ads, visit the home page of the White House. Unless they speak English or Spanish, they’re not going to have much luck deciphering it. English and Spanish are the only two languages available on this Executive Branch Web site, which is more than can be said for the other two branches of government. Web sites for Congress and the Supreme Court are available only in English. From the Department of State to the Department of Justice, you need to speak English to understand what our government is saying.

While translating a Web site into Arabic may not be as glamorous as crafting an ad campaign, it costs a lot less and, more important, communicates to every Arab speaker on the Internet, anywhere in the world, 24 hours a day. According to the research firm Global Reach, there are roughly 4.4 million Arabic speakers using the Internet today. That figure will reach 5 million in 2003.

American businesses have already caught on to the importance of Web “localization.” A few major multinationals, such as General Electric, General Motors and Microsoft now offer Web pages in Arabic. Microsoft went one step further last year when it launched the MSN Arabia portal, available in Arabic and English.

Many more companies have localized their Web sites for various parts of the world, from FedEx offering a Chinese-language site to Lucent offering a Russian site. Clearly, corporate America, while still very much in the early stages of Web globalization, understands the need to speak the many languages of the world.

And they should, because English is fast losing its dominance over the Internet. According to Global Reach, more than half of all Internet users today are not native-English speakers. By 2007, native-English speakers will make up less than one-third of all Internet users. While English may indeed be the lingua franca of the international business community, if you want to reach the hearts and minds of the consumers of the worlds, you need translators.

Which brings us back to the government. Ironically, there is one government Web site that does make a very good effort at translating Web pages: the Social Security Administration. It offers Web pages in 15 languages – from Arabic to Chinese to Tagalog. Why? Because millions of Americans are not native-English speakers. The Social Security Administration is making itself accessible to Americans.

If the government and businesses are to make America accessible to non-Americans, they need to invest in translation. The Internet connects the world, but it is language that connects people.

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