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The E-Commerce Disruption Series: What You Need to Know About Translations for Europe

Why you need a thoughtful approach to translation for e-commerce success

This is the fourth piece in the Lionbridge E-commerce Disruption Series, which explores changes in the e-commerce space as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

You’ve translated your copy into German by using a translator based in Germany. Now, you plan to market your products not only to Germany but to Switzerland as well. After all, German is one of Switzerland’s official languages. Feeling satisfied with your online marketing approach? Not so fast. This one-size-fits-all e-commerce translation strategy is common, but it’s the type of rookie mistake that may cause your online sales to fall flat in Europe.

Since the coronavirus pandemic has greatly increased e-commerce activity worldwide, now is a great time to introduce or expand your online offerings to European markets. Even with the reopening of brick-and-mortar stores in Europe, Sygnifyd Ecommerce Pulse data found that Europe experienced a 32% increase in e-commerce sales for the week ending June 28 when compared with e-commerce sales prior to the pandemic. But, a word of caution – you must have a thoughtful plan when selling your products online in multiple languages.

The sheer number of European languages, linguistic rules and idiosyncrasies all create challenges that must be overcome. This primer will help you avoid translation pitfalls, execute a well, thought-out translation strategy and ultimately enable you to successfully expand your marketing initiatives.

Learn how Lionbridge can help your e-commerce website connect with international customers in any market.

How Can the Same Language Differ from Country-to-Country?

In the example above, the marketer wanted to use the same German content for both Germany and Switzerland. Simply put, it’s a tactic that’s destined to fail.

“The linguistic differences are abundant between the German used in Germany and the German used in Switzerland,” says Claude Oliver Frank, Lionbridge Switzerland’s Language Quality Manager, German. “The spelling is slightly different and some of the words are very different.

For instance, the Swiss don't write “maßgebend.“ They write “massgebend.“ They use the word “Trottoir” instead of “Bürgersteig” and the word “Velo” instead of “Fahrrad.”

“If you want to convince consumers to buy your products, it really is wise to observe the language differences between countries,” says Frank.

A supermarket chain in Switzerland learned this lesson some years ago when their advertising agency neglected to use the local Swiss term for the word “grill” during a summer ad campaign. Instead of using the word “grillieren,” the advertisement appeared as “grillen,” the usage in Germany. The blunder incensed their Swiss customers.

Similar linguistic differences are present when comparing the Italian that is used in Italy with the Italian-speaking part of Switzerland and the French that is used in France with the French-speaking part of Switzerland.

While Austria and Germany are closer to one another in the way their German words are spelled, there are still differences in vocabulary and dialect. Austrian German, the official language in Austria, was influenced by Austro-Bavarian, the unofficial native language of Austria.

It’s imperative for marketers to recognize these types of differences as they expand to new European markets.

Why is it Best for a Marketer to Have a Multilingual Website in Spain if Everyone Speaks Spanish?

If your target market is Madrid, you’ll want your online content to be in Spanish. However, if you hope to convince people in the northeast region of Spain to buy your brand, your e-commerce site will need to be translated into Catalan. That is the best way to resonate with residents of Catalonia.

Even though people in all parts of Spain speak international Spanish, the country has a total of five main languages. In addition to Spanish and Catalan, Galician is spoken in Galicia, Basque is spoken in the Basque Country and Valencian is spoken in Valencia. The people in each area will prefer to interact in the language they are most comfortable with, which is why many websites in Spain are multilingual and include most or all these main languages.

“When a company is first entering Spain, we recommend they translate into international Spanish and then choose another language based on the most important market to them, depending on their product or service,” says David Granados, Lionbridge’s Southern Europe Region Director of Sales. “It’s a good moment to start e-commerce in Spain. Websites were traditionally used to drive people to the stores. Now with the pandemic, we are seeing websites shifting to online sales.”

What Are Some Other Linguistic Considerations When Using English?

When attempting to enter markets in the United Kingdom (U.K.), U.S. companies face language localization challenges that may not be obvious. Reaching the hearts and minds of Great Britain’s consumers is more complicated than simply placing goods on the U.K.’s leading e-commerce platforms, even if product descriptions are in English.

American English must be translated to British English. It’s the difference between “gasoline” in the U.S. versus “petrol” in the U.K. or a “hood” in the U.S. versus a “car bonnet” in the U.K. Spelling is another thing to watch out for. A British customer will expect to know the “colour” of a product, not the “color.” While these types of oversights may seem to be insignificant, they’re not. Failing to pay attention to these details can cause you to lose credibility with your potential buyer, which is exactly what you are trying to avoid.

And just when you’ve perfected your Queen’s English for consumers in the U.K., don’t even think about using the same copy for the market in Ireland. Irish English differs from U.K. English in both vocabulary and usage.

“Language strategy is a fundamental idea that is often overlooked by English speakers who lack proficiency in a second language and exposure to cultural differences,” says Gerard Tamakloe, Lionbridge Technical Project Manager, Operations. “Oftentimes, they tend to see things from their own perspective. They really need to think about the market they are targeting and create multilingual content from that position.”

How Can You Facilitate Multilingual Campaigns?

When executing multilingual campaigns for regions throughout Europe, it is best to engage a Language Service Provider (LSP) at the time the content is being created or even a bit earlier, according to Pius Fellner, Lionbridge Vice President Operations DACH Region.

“Occasionally companies approach us late in the process and want us to translate content that will not resonate with the new market. At that point, their best option is to reinvent the campaign,” Fellner says.

When is it Best to Forgo Translation?

While it may be counterintuitive to use source language when entering a new market, there are times when this is the best strategy.

Lionbridge found this to be the case when conducting a cultural evaluation of a tagline in numerous markets for a financial technology company with a trading platform. English – the source language – resonated better than the translated version of the tagline for highly educated consumers who had a strong background in financial trading. A transcreated tagline worked better for consumers in other regions who merely wanted to dabble in trading. Transcreation is when a message is adapted from its original language and made culturally relevant to its new target audience.

“We are more than just a translation agency. We are a strategic partner,” says Louise Pierse, Lionbridge Global Content Specialist, Operations. “We help our clients understand market preferences so they can tailor their linguistic approaches in a purposeful way.”

Lionbridge as Your Guide

It may be daunting to decide which foreign markets to enter and how to navigate these countries’ linguistic and cultural differences. By partnering with Lionbridge, you can remove the guesswork from translated content, prevent costly mistakes and enable your company to confidently target each market with a proven linguistic strategy.

To further explore our E-Commerce Disruption Series, you may be interested in reading the following blogs:

Get in touch

Want to learn how e-commerce translation can help you expand your target markets and global sales? Reach out to Lionbridge today.

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Janette Mandell
Janette Mandell