Make your product “translation worthy,” and the world will follow

When a software company asks me if I think its new product will succeed globally, I typically respond by asking: Is your product translation worthy? In other words, are people eager to voluntary translate your app or website into their language?

This phenomenon is commonly known as “translation crowdsourcing,” and a number of familiar names have relied on the kindness of strangers to take their products and websites global—companies such as Google, Facebook, and Twitter. When a website or software application is so appealing to users around the world that they will help translate it—for free—the odds are quite good that the product will succeed globally.

Google, in its early years, relied largely on volunteer translators to help take its search engine interface from one to more than 100 languages. Today, Google relies on the crowd to comment on the quality of its machine translation engine, creating a virtuous cycle of content improvements.

Twitter translation feature

In 2009, conference company TED opened up the translation of its recorded talks to the crowd. It initially seeded the effort with professionally translated talks into 20 languages. But once the crowd took over the number of languages supported rose quickly. Today, TED offers more than 50,000 translated talks across more than 100 languages. The leading volunteer translators have translated more than 1,000 talks each.

Translating Facebook

And then there is Facebook, one of the most successful examples of translation crowdsourcing.

In 2007, Facebook was just three years year old and available only in English. There were many experts at the time who predicted the company would struggle in its quest to expand into new markets. But behind the scenes, Facebook had developed a translation crowdsourcing platform that would allow Facebook users to translate the user interface. Keep in mind that up until then, a user in, say, Germany, had to understand English to make use of Facebook, so the appeal of the social network was constrained to a small segment of Internet users. When Facebook opened up this translation platform to its users, they were surprised by the reaction.

Relying almost entirely on volunteer translators, Facebook expanded to 74 languages in just two years—an amazing feat by any measure. And each new language release was followed by a surge in new member registrations in their respective languages.

Facebook did not need to rely on volunteers to go global so quickly. There were a number of translation vendors that could have handled the workload with little difficulty, and Facebook has plenty of money on hand.

So why did Facebook do it?

Facebook saw the translation platform as a unique way of engaging users, but also of creating higher-quality translations. Facebook users would be allowed to vote on the quality of a given translation so that, over time, the best translations would win out. And, this being Facebook, the process of translating would be highly social and interactive. In other words, users might actually have fun translating the website. Which is exactly what happened.

Enter Xiaomi

Xiaomi is the technology company few Americans have heard of—let alone can pronounce—but it is one of the fastest-growing smartphone companies in China. The company designs, builds, and sells its own hardware and has developed its own version of the Android operating system, known as MIUI.

Xiaomi M1Xiaomi has taken a page from Facebook’s playbook by allowing volunteers to translate its operating system and providing the resources—as in online forums—for users to connect and improve translations. Xiaomi now supports user forums in 25 countries outside of its home market—and claims that its MIUI software now has more than 30 million users. If you wish, you can download an unofficial, English-language version of MIUI to run on your Google phone.

In October, Xiaomi hired the man in charge of Google’s Android software, Hugo Barra, to lead its global expansion. Over the past few weeks Mr. Barra has shed some light into Xiaomi’s plans. He says the company is initially expanding its reach into Southeast Asia, though it won’t likely stop there. “I’m trying to find markets and get to them as quickly as possible,” he said at the LeWeb conference in Paris in December.

Thanks to the volunteer translation efforts occurring there, Mr. Barra need only look at its user forums to get a pretty good idea of which markets may be most receptive to an “official” launch of its smartphones.

To be translation worthy is no guarantee of success, but so far it has proven a highly reliable indicator of the next generation of global superstars.

Translations can be conversations with your customers

Translation worthiness need not apply only to software. As you think about your products, ask yourself—and, more important, your customers—the extent to which they would go to adapt your products and content into their languages and cultures.

If you’re a software company, you might consider opening up your software in ways that users can self-translate the interface. Hosting local-language user forums is an excellent way to facilitate communities of passionate users (and translators). There are also a number of third-party crowdsourcing “enablers” that can help you open up your content to volunteer translators, companies such as Duolingo, Smartling, and Crowdin.

But always remember that crowdsourced translation isn’t “free” translation. Companies like Facebook and Google and TED could have easily afforded to hire translation vendors to take their products and content global.

The true ROI of the crowd are the many intangibles they offer – insights into user demand, culture modifications that may be required of your product, and the ever-important word of mouth that emerges when users feel they have played a role in the localization of a product.

If, at the end of your crowdsourcing efforts you discover that your product is not translation worthy, don’t despair; this too is valuable information. It doesn’t mean your product won’t succeed around the world but it should serve as a cautionary signal. Perhaps you need to invest first in community building via website localization and social networking. Perhaps users already have access to a better product in their language, a product you need to do a better job of competing with. Or perhaps there are cultural issues that you never considered – and that the crowd will help you understand better before you launch an expensive in-country marketing campaign.

John Yunker is a web and software globalization consultant with Byte Level Research and author of The Web Globalization Report Card. He blogs at GlobalbyDesign.