The European Union is an economic and political bloc of 27 independent countries, with a combined population of 501 million. While many of these nations share common policies on trade, agriculture, the environment, and regional development; joint actions on crime and terror; a central Parliament, bank, and court of justice; and even a single currency, they are far from sharing a common language. In fact, among the countries that comprise the European Union, there are 23 official and working languages. There are also about 150 regional and minority languages, sublanguages, and dialects spoken by as many as 50 million people.

Add to that the 25 or so other countries - many of them former Soviet republics that formed the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) - that are part of the continent but have not joined the European Union, and the numbers probably double. ...

With such linguistic diversity among countries - and sometimes within different parts of the same country - designing a speech system for the European market is certainly a daunting task. Communicating to such a diverse audience truly is as complex as it seems.

"You cannot assume that you will be able to reach an entire population with one application," says Jose Elizondo, senior principal of multilingual voice user interface design at Nuance Communications.

"The only thing you can assume is that everything you assume is absolutely wrong," adds Sue Ellen Reager, CEO of @International Services, an Atlanta-based translation and localization firm.

Whom to Hire

When hiring a translation and localization expert, it is important that the person is a native speaker, and ideally he should live in the area where the application will be used. "You could use people from there who are living in the U.S., but over a period of years you could lose your edge if you’re not using the language every day," Graham warns. "If they have been removed from the culture for a few years, it could erode their ability [to provide an effective translation]."

The accent should also be considered. "You might have a fantastic, technologically superior system that sounds like a joke," Elizondo cautions, noting the wrong accent can put off a caller more than anything else. He equates it to a company using a southern U.S. accent as representative of all Americans.

It’s also advisable to find someone who understands both the language and the speech technologies involved, "someone who knows how certain things affect the grammars, and how they can change the script and call mapping," Elizondo adds.

"The only way to do it right is to get someone who knows the language inside and out, and get him involved right from the start when you’re developing your application," Yudkowsky suggests.

Help is also available from the European Union, which supports emerging speech and translation technologies by providing grants to developers. Additionally, the European Union maintains a language database, called InterActive Terminology for Europe, which contains more than 8.7 million terms in the 23 member languages and Latin. The database, which can be accessed via the Web at, allows users to type in their terms and source and target languages, and even gives users domain choices, such as politics, economics, or education. The entire EU database of dictionaries is donated free of charge to any company striving to improve automated translation.

Another helpful tool is a localization engine developed by Reager’s firm, @International Services. The Web-based System Localizer allows developers of Web, speech, and kiosk applications to automatically plug in certain linguistic elements, such as date, time, and number configurations, pronouns and possessives, plurals, proper names, phone numbers, currencies, addresses, and about 110 other linguistic headaches that can vary from one language to the next. The tool, which contains a localization library with 200 languages and dialects, pulls the source code, converts it for the new languages chosen, and reinserts it back into the programming layer.

Bank on It

Jan Smith, a strategic program manager at Bank of America, has used the System Localizer for translating her company’s applications into other languages.

“Playing out a date or amounts is where you can really run into trouble,” she says. “Then there are cultural things that you have to bring to bear and intricacies to each language.”

Sure, running an application through a localization engine adds another step to the process, but the costs of not doing it are far worse, according to Smith. “The whole point of internationalization is reaching out, and if you do it without the sensitivity that’s required, you can wind up looking really bad,” she says."It ends up being a lot more than people bargained for, but it doesn’t have to be terrifying if you have the right people with you." For Smith, @International Services filled that bill. "@International Services really understands concatenation issues and how IVRs are designed," she says.

That’s an important point, no matter whom you trust with your translations. "The company should understand how to design an IVR and how IVRs are pieced together," Smith says. "If you’re working with a translation agency and they’re not asking those questions, they’re just not doing their jobs."

But that responsibility does not rest solely on the translation company. Smith says you need to know and understand your own application first, and should be able to fill in for the translator what comes before and after any prompt to be translated. Doing so provides the translator with a context, "so they have the complete thought, not just a single phrase for translation," she explains. "The more research and organization you can do before going into a project, the smoother the outcome will be."

Mounting Costs

But as with any speech-related project, budgets are always a top concern, and correctly translating and localizing an application can be expensive. When all of the elements - translation, localization, application coding and recoding, voice talent, etc. - are factored in, costs for a bank-by-phone application, for example, in multiple languages can mount to between $250,000 and $1 million in a hurry.

Giant enterprises with operations around the world and smaller companies trying to go global are all being drained by the costs of producing international versions of their speech applications, often in dozens of languages. Many wind up skipping a lot of languages, or drop translation altogether, because of the costs.

So if you’re thinking of including multiple languages in your IVR, it behooves you to sit down and make a plan early. There is a difference of opinions, though, regarding whether it is better to code for each language separately or to do them all at once.

Reager leaves no doubt about which side she takes: "There is a way to program [an application] once and have it move across languages, but that’s not what’s being taught," she says. "The first reaction is to go from English to Spanish, then English to German, and each requires new languages and new programming. Then the bills mount and the chaos mounts."

The biggest part to reining in costs is limiting the number of people involved. "The more people involved, the more detrimental it will be to the company," Reager says.

At the very least, it would not hurt to have a native speaker of the language review the script for any glaring errors. "It makes sense to have a native speaker look at and debug the script," advises Aneeq Hashmi, lead telecom engineer at Pronexus, which has developed a toolkit for building IVRs.

The issue of cost is also directly tied to the amount of content that has to be translated. Here, most companies cannot afford to scrimp, but that is precisely what many do. When customers decide to purchase a product and enter into a relationship with a company, they expect their needs will be met in the same way when they require additional information about the product, or should they have problems using the product after the sale. But many companies translate only their presales content into several languages; then, once the customer is on board, he has to navigate the technical support IVR in a language other than his native tongue. Not only is this frustrating for customers, but it can also prevent them from fully enjoying the company products. This leads to a slowdown in repeat business, fewer referrals, and more work for marketers.

Take a Test

Efforts toward localization also need to go well beyond the application development stage. Even after an application is complete, it’s not enough to accept the translation and move on. "Regardless of whatever method you used to create that first draft, you have to subject [the application] to usability testing, letting real users interact with the system to see where they get stuck or don’t understand something," Elizondo suggests.

Waiting until after the system goes live is too late. "Most times, companies only learn about a problem after the system is done, and then it is expensive and time-consuming to fix," Reager says. "It slows down system deployment so much."

In the end, translation and localization efforts often come down to a decision to offend the smallest number of people. "It is really up to [the company] who it wants to communicate with and what kind of budget it has," GM Voices’ Graham says. "You can do one language that most people in a country will understand, or you can go more granular if you have the budget."

Graham points out that even in the U.S., there are a number of types of Spanish spoken. "You come up with one version that most people will understand and will not offend too many people."

So how do you come to that conclusion? "It is not an exact science, and you have to make compromises because of the uniqueness of each language," Graham says. "You have to look at your potential in a market, and the upside versus the investment."

And above all else, be respectful of the end user, Elizondo says. "He should not be made to feel like a second-class citizen," he says. "As long as you approach it from that angle and you’re not just pushing people aside based on percentages," success can happen.


English-to-English Translation

Taking a system built in U.S. English and translating it into U.K. English presents its share of problems. The same catchy turn of a phrase used in an application for a New York audience might be lost on someone in London. Similarly, a slang term in Kent, England, is likely to mean something entirely different to a horse farmer in rural Kentucky.

"Americans assume that U.S. English products can be transported to England, and that’s just not the case" says Sue Ellen Reager, CEO of @International Services, an Atlanta-based translation and localization firm. "Our approach to things in the U.S. is so much different." As an example, she notes how the British are more rigid with grammar and verbs and prefer less hype and showmanship in their marketing and training materials. "In the U.S., things can be peppy and high-energy, and in England they’re more formal," Reager says. "Then there are features that Europeans expect that Americans do not even think about." Also, there are many word differences between U.S. English and U.K. English: In the U.K., for instance, the term hash key is used for what Americans call the telephone’s pound key. Even how the British structure their dates is different—in the U.S. the norm is month, day, and year, while in the U.K. it’s day, month, and year.

Sidebar: Localization Lacking

The story of Chevy difficulty in the 1970s in selling its popular Nova model in Mexico because the car’s name translates to "it does not go" in Spanish is well-known, but here are some other past marketing foibles that are just as amusing: * A past Coors slogan, "Turn it loose," was translated into Spanish to read "Suffer from diarrhea." * Clairol introduced its Mist Stick curling iron in Germany, only to find out "mist" is German slang for manure. * Colgate introduced a toothpaste in France called Cue, which is also the name of a notorious porn magazine. * An American t-shirt maker in Miami printed commemorative shirts for the pope’s visit to Spain. Instead of saying, "I saw the pope" (el papa), the shirts read, "I saw the potato" (la papa). * In Italy, a campaign for Schweppes tonic water translated the name as Schweppes toilet water. * Frank Perdue’s slogan, "It takes a strong man to make a tender chicken," was translated into Spanish as "It takes an aroused man to make a chicken affectionate." * Scandinavian vacuum manufacturer Electrolux used the following in an American ad campaign: "Nothing sucks like an Electrolux."


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