August 30, 2004, 12:00 AM

Selling La Vida Loca

When it comes to Spanish retail web sites, the question isn’t Should I? but How do I?

There’s a widely reported story that when the Pope visited Mexico, an enterprising North American had thousands of souvenir T-shirts printed saying “Vi la Papa.” Unfortunately, the story goes, he meant to say “Vi el Papa.” He was left with a stock of shirts proclaiming “I saw the potato” not, as he had expected, “I saw the Pope.”

Whether that story is true or merely one of those “it should be true” stories, the T-shirt entrepreneur learned a lesson that online retailers are learning as well-the desire to offer products to a certain market in the target market’s language of choice is often harder than it appears. But usually what trips retailers up are the nuances of a language, not blatant errors like using la when you mean to use el. “Translation isn’t replicating words; it’s communicating thoughts and meanings,” says Will Fleming, president of MotionPoint Corp., a Coconut Creek, FL-based provider of translation services for web-based retailers and other businesses.

Fastest growing market

By now, the power of the U.S. Spanish-speaking market is well understood and can be summed up in one phrase: “Hispanics are the fastest growing minority in the U.S.,” says Augustin Viola, director of e-commerce for Office Depot Inc., which launched a Spanish-language retail web site last year.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Hispanics make up 14% of the U.S. population and their numbers are growing five times faster than the general population’s. In addition, the Census Bureau says, their purchasing power is growing twice as fast as the general population and will amount to more than $1 trillion by 2010, up from $450 billion in 2000. Half of the Hispanic population over age 16 has Internet access.

Many Hispanics are becoming woven into the web of American life, but even many who know English prefer to conduct certain aspects of their lives and business transactions in Spanish. Consultants Common Sense Advisory Inc. reports that 70% of Spanish speakers residing in the U.S., many of whom are comfortable in English, prefer Spanish for domestic and family activities. “Depending on the level of acculturation, a significant portion feel more comfortable with Spanish when it comes to making major purchase decisions,” Viola says.

That is a reality that a wide range of retailers have tapped into, from small sites such as GiftBaskets.com to larger sites AdvanceAutoParts.com, which launched its Spanish site in mid August, SharperImage.com, 1800Flowers.com and Office Depot, to name a few.

And so the decision for many retailers boils down not to whether but rather to how to make their sites available in Spanish. “We’re based in Miami, where there’s a huge Latin population, so we knew the market was there,” says Marc Malaga, president of GiftBaskets.com. “Our challenge was to figure out the best way to do it.”

The web presents new translation challenges. Since a web site is dynamic, the demands for translation are constant. In the pre-Internet days, translation of catalogs and advertising material was relatively easy. Once it was completed, it was static until the next edition. In addition, on top of the ever-changing content of web sites is the fact that the web is an impersonal medium that relies almost entirely on a technology-based user interface. If you don’t get the message right the first time, you can lose the customer.

When it comes to translating sites, the choices are to translate and maintain a Spanish site in-house, go outside using a hybrid machine-human translation or go outside for a human translation service. Almost no one uses a pure machine-based translation for a customer operation as important as a retail web site. Too many retailers have read about web sites-or conducted experiments at such sites-that purport to translate into other languages and end up producing hilarious mistranslations because the technology reads only the words and cannot understand context or how word order affects meaning.

Office Depot chose the in-house route, providing regular translation work to 40 to 50 outside translators who update product descriptions for the Spanish OfficeDepot.com within a few weeks of when products change on the English site. Since major updates occur only a couple times a year, the lag is acceptable, Viola says. And the peace of mind that human translators provide is worth the cost and lag, he says. “Manual translation is the only way to avoid a customer experience or p.r. disaster,” he says. Office Depot maintains and updates the web site in-house.

GiftBaskets.com chose the outside route, employing MotionPoint to translate its site and present the Spanish information to shoppers when they click on the GiftBaskets.com en Espanol button. “There was very little for us to do before and after implementing it,” Malaga recounts. “It took us under an hour to get going and we’ve had nothing to do since then.”

Client-specific glossary

MotionPoint first translates a site, using 55 human translators on staff organized by vertical markets. They consult with retailers to establish the appropriate translations for words where there are multiple options. The company establishes a client-specific glossary that will guide all future translations. For instance, Fleming recounts, a client that sold pens on its web site had, using a previous translator, three different words to describe pens. Two were words that applied to a ballpoint pen and one applied to a fountain pen-and none was correct, he says. In translating the GiftBaskets.com content, the company encountered the word “popcorn” frequently. Just about every Latin American dialect has a different word for popcorn, Fleming says. MotionPoint’s translations are reviewed by three people before they are presented to the client, Fleming says.

After the initial translation, MotionPoint translates only changes to the site. It then delivers the Spanish language site in the form of a presentation layer when a shopper clicks on the Espanol button. All that MotionPoint requires is a link to the Spanish site through the MotionPoint technology. The system does not change the retailer’s underlying database and does not require a parallel site or other IT work. “We deal only at the language layer of a web site,” Fleming says. “We have no impact on the underlying technology.”

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