Do you want to do business in Buenos Aires or attract new e-business in Beijing? If you launch a multilingual Web site, you’ll tap into international markets that the sales staff never dreamed they could reach. But how do you reach the world through your online business? It’s not a simple process, but we can show you the tricks of trading in the international e-market.
In this article, we’ll cover the essential technical considerations that you need to know before your company launches a multilingual site. Software, staffing, and planning can make all the difference.
When in Rome
The strength of data mining Internet-user demographics is helping to reach new, untapped markets in such far-reaching and potentially high-growth areas as South America and China. But before an e-commerce company can trade its goods or services internationally, it must speak the language of the world market. The customer-centric nature of the Internet requires an international Web site to support multiple languages. Developing content and services for a second language is a significant undertaking that involves more than just translating documents.

Do your homework
Before launching an international site, you’ll need to conduct some basic research, looking at potential customer demographics in countries with the strongest markets. Remember that the strength of second language markets may depend on the dynamics of local and regional conditions, as well as international factors. You can read more about researching language markets in a recent TechRepublic feature, “Targeting language markets for a multilingual Web site.”

How many pesos will it cost you?
Consider the cost of Web page redesign and development. A multilingual site will require new graphics, translation, server configuration and possibly a separate Web site server. Your technical staff will invest considerable time launching a multilingual Web site. Good planning is one way to significantly reduce the effort and costs.

 If your company is selling products over the Internet, understand the currency capabilities of your payment system. Most e-commerce payment systems support multiple languages, but your technical staff should make an assessment to avoid problems later.

Character encoding
A major concern for multilingual Web sites is proper character encoding, a term that refers to the character sets available for display on a computer. A Web designer who adds information in a second language might try using the <FONT FACE> tag. That will instruct a Web browser to use a script font that differs from its default font. But this HTML element is not designed to properly support foreign language characters and can create significant problems for users.

The Web was originally designed to use the International Standards Organization’s ISO-8859-1 character set. It’s often referred to as Latin 1. This special character set supports Western European languages such as Albanian, Catalan, Danish, Dutch, English, Finnish, French, German, Icelandic, Italian, Norwegian, Portuguese, Spanish, and Swedish. The current standard is the ISO 8859 standard series, which provides character sets for 20 of the most widely used languages on the Internet. If you want to use Japanese, it’s outside of the standard series, and the Web site administrator will need to configure the server for language negotiation.

The site server can use cookies to determine the encoding of a visitor’s Web browser and then deliver Web pages to fit the user’s needs. Encoding can also provide “transcoding” capabilities for a multilingual site. This happens by storing a Web page in Unicode , which is used to translate to other encoding character sets on the fly.
Check out the character standards and encoding at the Babel Web site orISO Online for a comprehensive translation of character standards and encoding. Or you can visit the Yahoo! Translationservices page and the W3C sites, which also offer detailed information.
Software speaks many languages
Numerous new software packages now translate Web page information into different foreign languages. Usually the translation is quite good, and many translation services use this software for an initial translation. But you must remember that a machine makes these translations, so they’re usually literal translations. Some everyday expressions in English sound strange when translated into certain foreign languages. Literal translations may result in awkward or even embarrassing phrases on your Web site. Consider the Spanish phrase, “tengo sed.” If you translate that literally, you’ve just said, “I have thirst.” Of course most software would translate the phrase into the common English phrase, ”I’m thirsty.” But it’s not wise to rely solely on the software; at least one human translator should double-check software translations.
Here’s an historical example of how precise translating must be in order to avoid embarrassing mistakes. In a now-famous blunder, President John F. Kennedy once declared, “Ich bin ein Berliner” to the citizens of West Berlin. He intended to say that he and the world grouped themselves with the West Berliners. Instead, he called himself and everyone in the world “doughnuts,” since German requires that the article “ein” be dropped when referring to nationality.
Speak your customer’s language
Once your company has launched a multilingual Web site, activity to the site may require additional translation resources. A Web page in French will generate e-mail and messages from customers in French. So you’ll need an e-mail client that can deliver foreign character fonts. Depending on the traffic load, you may need to outsource to a translation service or you may have to hire a full-time translator. If your company’s products require lots of direct customer contact, consider using customer service outsourcing.  provides an overview of how to get started.

Bruce Spencer is a freelance technical writer who has been working in the information industry since 1983 and writing about the Internet since 1995.

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