While currency and distance remain formidable barriers between cultures, language is the most daunting. In the past, foreign markets were almost the exclusive preserve of multinational corporations. Now, any company with a Web site can find a market abroad. But is the Internet generating a lot of global interest for businesses? Many companies say they are fielding a growing number of orders from foreign countries. Others say they have set up multi-language Web sites in an effort to attract an international audience. Software vendors say that small businesses are generating far more demand for their products than they did in the past.
But what happens when an Internet shopper in Pakistan wants to buy maple syrup from a supplier in Vermont? Assuming that the manufacturer does not speak Urdu and the Pakistani surfer does not speak English, is this a lost sale? Not if the supplier has translation software.
John Novak started using this kind of software after his bid for a million-dollar contract in the Dominican Republic. Novak, executive director and chief operating officer of Wachs Energy, in Charlotte, N.C., spoke only English and the company in the Dominican Republic insisted on transacting business in Spanish.
"We needed to understand Spanish fast," Novak says. "The contracts have to be written in Spanish and we don't have anybody here that's fluent enough." He also found out that human translators cost a lot, and for a 17-person company in an industry where work can be sporadic, cost is a particularly sensitive issue.
Some companies accept the cost as well as the inaccuracies. DataEdge LLC, provides cost management research data to pharmaceutical companies for drug development decision making. DataEdge collects data from all over the world. In fact, a high percentage of its data is collected in languages other than English.
"Our researchers use our software language translators to understand the information contained in the documents and add it to our database," says Lauren Smith, a coding team leader with DataEdge. Unlike Wachs, DataEdge does not have to achieve exact translations since the company does not publish its findings. The information gleaned for foreign language research is simply added to the company's resources.
How It Works
Machine translations are not always up to the highest standards. They are designed to give the user the gist of the document's meaning. It is generally not the stuff a small business wants in its official documents or marketing materials. By teaching the software terms specific to the user's industry and by fine-tuning the software's language dictionary, a user can bring the product's accuracy up to about 70 percent. That is probably the best a user could expect, even with periodic updates.
"But that is good enough for incoming communications or for simply understanding what a document means," says Brian Briggs, managing director of Language Partners International, Inc., an Evanston, Ill. language systems value-added reseller. "It's a good research tool for small businesses trying to understand what others are doing in international markets."
"It's definitely not up to publication quality, but once I get down to the final stage of actually signing a contract, I'm going to get a human translation," says Novak. The human translation will now be a less expensive editing function rather than an expensive project started from scratch. The technology saves Wachs Energy a lot of money.
What To Expect
Until a few years ago, machine translation software was sold almost exclusively to the U.S. government, multi- national organizations, and academic institutions. But demand from smaller companies has grown and with it, prices have come down. Multi-user server-based systems still sell for $60,000 to $100,000, but desktop versions can be purchased for $50.
Professional translation can cost up to $30 per page and commercial documents of the sort that Novak needs to translate routinely runs into hundreds of pages. Wachs Energy provides construction services at power plants and refineries. Contractual issues regarding the apportioning of responsibility in these kinds of environments can be very complex.
"If I had to go to a professional translator every time changes were made to these documents, I would be broke right now," says Novak. "The translation software costs $1,200 and I estimate it saved me $5,000 in professional translation fees so far."
During his meetings in the Dominican Republic, Novak would ask for an electronic copy of all documents. He would pop it in his laptop, and run his automatic language translations software on it. After a couple of minutes an impenetrable Spanish document is transformed into English.
Transparent Language, Inc. was one of the pioneers in the single-user system market with a CD-ROM-based product called Easy Translator. The company also markets Desktop Translator, which retails for about $130, and Transcend, which is a customizable system aimed at small business users.
"We began thinking about creating a $50 translation product when we came up with Easy Translator, which did very well in the market," says Chuck McGonagle, vice president of marketing for Transparent Language.
In the past year, free online translations have emerged as an option. All of the major language systems vendors have free online translations services, but perhaps the best known is AltaVista's Babel Fish, altavista.com. Based on Systran's translation technology, it tallies more than three million page views per day. Anyone seeking to translate a message or a simple document can log onto Smart Link Corp's paralink.com, Lernout & Hauspie's itranslator.com, or Transparent Language's freetranslation.com. Just enter the text and choose a language.
Vladimir Ouzdin, president of Smart Link, remarks on translation software's simplicity, however, he says, you get what you pay for. The quality isn't always the best.
Most translation Web sites offer payment options. For about a penny per word, users can get a higher-quality machine translation. With the paid service, specialized dictionaries are applied. If they want high-end publication-quality translations for brochures or other marketing materials, they can have a human translator for about 12 cents a word. With a human translator, issues such as regional idiomatic expressions should be resolved.
In the past, corporations relied on expensive translation equipment to conduct business overseas, leaving smaller companies in the dust. Translation software means businesses can easily succeed in a global market.
Cassimir Medford wrote the "Sitting Ducks" feature on broadband security for the February issue.
Systran Software Inc.
Systran Personal translation services costs between $30 to $69 depending on if it's downloaded or software-based. Systran Professional service costs between $250 and $350.
Lernout & Hauspie
L&H Easy Language is priced at about $50, while its Power Translator Pro 7 is $150. Its Japanese to English Typhoon MT 6.0 is $595, and KanjiScan OCR is $495.
Smart Link Corp.
Smart Link's PROMPT Internet is priced at $75. PROjectMT 98 English to Russian as well as its REVERSO Pro English to French retail for $400 each. PROMPT 98 Giant, a multi-language package, is priced at $600. Also offered are server-based products and free online services at .
Transparent Language Inc.
Provides free online services and complex server-based products. Transparent Language's products include Easy Translator, which retails for $60. Desktop Translator sells for $130.
Language Partners International Inc.
Provides a range of products and tools for translators and translation managers. Also includes system implementation services and consulting to companies not in the translation business.