The balancing act of localisation – finding the point where cost and reach intersect

On entering new territories, companies are confronted with the need for localising their offering, literature or even brands, to maximise their reach. But how far can they go to accommodate marginal languages while still making a decent return on investment (ROI)?

Inverse calculation

The ROI calculation involves an inverse relationship between the size of the investment (roughly the sum of the cost of all languages that the material is translated into) and the resultant reach (in size of each additional language group).

If the cost of each new translation is roughly the same (barring cost of production and distribution of print publications), but some languages provide greater reach than others, it makes sense to translate into dominant languages first. When translating into a range of languages, ROI will become progressively less as languages are more and more marginal.

But at the same time, volumes will increase (generally-speaking, but not in all cases), affecting ROI. Each company will have a cut-off point. Initially, this may simply be influenced by affordability, but over time and with increasing in-country success, the formula will come into play.

Different for different businesses

ROI is further a function of the kind of industry you’re in. For example, an educational publisher has very different variables from a cellphone manufacturer.

If we assume that the fee for translating and typesetting a school book in any language is a fixed amount in the low thousands of South African rands and the selling price in the low hundreds per copy, the payback calculation is in the tens of copies. Huge volumes are not needed to justify either Afrikaans books or Tshivenda books as additional languages. The business is still printing and distributing the same number of books, whereas now they are available in more languages, not just English.

However, when translating a teacher’s guide, the cost can increase ten-fold or even considerably more, and with soaring costs greater volumes are needed.

With a consumer products company it is quite different. Whereas translation and typesetting costs can be roughly the same for product booklets as for educational material, extra languages may incur extra printing and distribution costs into new geographical terrain, making inclusive marketing less of a no-brainer.

More and more technology companies are avoiding print, as the cost of printing and distribution is huge compared to electronic delivery. However, this luxury is not an option for most schools in South Africa.

Different for different markets

Little is needed by way of localisation for a South African company moving into Namibia – where English is the official language despite being spoken as a first language by only 1% of Namibians. But in linguistically fragmented countries like Nigeria and Uganda (and South Africa), a more difficult situation presents itself.

When mobile operator Orange entered Uganda, the choice of local language fell on Luganda, the dominant language, despite being spoken by “only” 10 million people (a third of the population). As a first-choice alternative language the numbers justified the decision.

Which dialect?

Even the same language might present difficulties. While it may not be viable to translate into different variants of Afrikaans, French as it is spoken in Canada is a more enticing option.

But Metropolitan French is understood by French Canadians, so French multinationals need not translate for local consumption, whereas French Canadian companies setting up in France will have to translate their wares. The same choice comes into the reckoning with Portuguese as it is spoken in Portugal, Angola and Brazil, and Zulu as it is spoken on the coast and in Johannesburg.

Enviable problem

The problem of ROI is further complicated beyond translating static literature – if you’re going to translate product packaging or manuals or websites into a new language, you also need to avail yourself of the resources to provide customer service in that language.

Another issue is the proliferation of commercially translated languages in modern times, making the choice that much more of an enviable problem. At the height of Nokia’s dominance, its wares were marketed in 52 languages. Today, leading mobile vendors translate into 200 languages. How many languages are justified by your volumes?

With such a wide choice, it would seem that market segmentation is the only way to predict viability of a service in a new language, but this is only affordable for companies with the clout of an MTN or Apple. It may not even yield reliable results – Steve Jobs has called market segmentation a wasteful exercise, reportedly saying “it is not the consumers’ job to know what they want”.

The only way to find out for sure is to test the waters first.

Ian Henderson is the founder and CTO of Rubric, a global language service provider, offering translation solutions to companies.