Translation for eCommerce

When actively targeting a country it’s natural to want to make sure you are translating correctly and talking the same language as your buyers. Many retailers will jump from that desire to being sure, and will definitely be told, that they need to use a professional translator for all copy on the site.

In my experience this is often the wrong approach. The cost of translation alone can eat away at much of your margin and it often won’t bring value over machine translation. Or more correctly, an eCommerce specific machine translation. If you’ve read about cross border ecommerce at all I’m sure you will have seen many people stating categorically “you must translate by human”; but it really isn’t as simple as that.

To go into more detail let’s first think about the structure of a standard product and then we’ll look at the copy on the site itself.

So what does a product look like? It almost always has the following:

  • Title
  • Short Description
  • Long Description
  • The item’s Specifics; for example color, material, connection types, sizes, weight.
  • Pictures
  • Reviews

Really, that’s about it. There are some categories in which you could argue there are elements that aren’t considered item specifics, but the concept is the same.

In this list it is only the long and short descriptions that a good, ecommerce focused machine translator will have trouble with. Descriptions are usually free text with little context for a translation engine to work with. It is not surprising automated translation can sometimes produce odd terms without context. There are a few ways to manage this, you should do at least one of these when optimizing description translation for a country:

  1. Rewrite your description so they only contain short, very specific sentences. You should do this whether you intend to remain with machine translation or even if you plan to use a human translator. Generally machine translation is better when working with clear and short sentences. If using a human translator it’s quite likely the translator isn’t familiar with your products or category so you will help them by being clear and to the point. Keep brand stories for your about pages.
  2. Let a machine build your description from information about your product. This will usually mean you have bullet points for descriptions. I’ve seen a fair few tests over the years that showed bullet points can actually have a positive impact on sales.
  3. Translate using a standard machine translation tool but let the buyer know that it has been translated. Help them further by providing a link to the original. This is my least favored option for full localization but it is better than risking misleading a buyer and can be used as a holder before you rewrite your text.

The most important part to get right is your product titles. While a good eCommerce translation machine should be able to pick out brands and product names, avoiding translating them, generic translation tools will not. It’s always good to check titles for this reason alone.

Also with titles, where appropriate, be sure to add items like color and shape, e.g. off the shoulder, with items like clothing and identification codes in technology and white goods. Doing so both makes your items more searchable but also ensure buyers get more clarity after your translation.

Human Translation

If you still plan to use a human translator, here’s a little more detail.

There are two basic types of human translation you can use on your products.

Full Translation is the most expensive. A translator is employed to translate every word. There are a range of costs depending on the translation agency but around 10-12 pence / cent per word is normal.

Proofread Translation is cheaper and often faster. The agency will initially translate your products with a machine then proofread and fix errors. This is clearly a good way to go, try to dig into your agencies arguments to understand why if they are pushing you for full translation. Prices are usually 6 – 9 pence / cents.

Most agencies will give you what is known as a Translation Memory. It means each time they translate a word or sentence they build it into the memory of their translation system. If that text comes up again they charge you less or even nothing for the word(s).

Translation memories are often specific for clients so you don’t benefit from previous work. If you are looking for human translation find a company that specializes in eCommerce and try to get the benefits of an existing translation memory rather than building up, and paying for, your own.

Cost of Human Translation

The costs can escalate quickly. Assuming you are going to go with the cheaper option of proofread translation and you’re getting the cheapest rate of 6 cents per word.

Most product descriptions have at least 100 words in the description. So you will pay around 1 Dollar / Pound / Euro per product. Retailers often have 1000 or more products so just for translation of descriptions you’re going be paying 1k. If you change your catalog every few months you can easily pay thousands each year in translation. Each time you add a new language you can add that again.

It’s not unbearable but will quickly mount and doesn’t necessarily offer you any benefit in increased sales. If you have longer descriptions (I recommend cutting them down), more products or your catalog changes more often, you’re going to be adding costs.

I’ve helped set up local sites for many retailers and those that took the human translation route usually spent around 100k to get their catalog translated at the start, into only a couple of languages. Maintenance can impact costs significantly over time.

Marketing Copy and the Rest of Your Site

There are probably various pages on your site which contain not only products. You likely have images with marketing copy, newsletters, an about page, support, FAQs, T&Cs and more. Unfortunately, there’s not a great machine option for these. Cut your pages down to the essentials and get them human translated.

Often you will need what’s known in the industry as “Transcreation”. This is taking marketing copy and not only translating it but making the copy culturally relevant to the country you’re localizing into. Think holidays or terminology with different meanings. Transcreation is of course more expensive but there’s no point falling at the last hurdle.

If you’re looking for more information about translation or have questions feel free to leave a question down below!

About Mark Ellis

Here on CBT Pulse Mark shares his knowledge and recommendations for International eCommerce and will shortly be releasing a manual for retailers on the subject. He is a specialist in helping grow retailer's sales overseas and has been leading international selling programs for marketplaces, SaaS companies and directly for retailers over 15 years. He started his career as a freelance software developer building eCommerce shops and marketing websites and has been involved in product development/delivery throughout his career.

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