Localization Business School: How terminology makes or breaks sales

A debate over the words should and shall almost derailed the world’s first universal climate deal in Paris in December 2015. The word shall would have legally obliged countries to cut emissions rather than just having to try to. Should was used instead to denote a guideline or moral obligation only. The legal mechanisms behind these words are significantly different.

If such an error can happen to some of the best paid translators on the planet, chances are that your translated content may pose a risk to your business as well.

The St. Hedwig Hospital in Berlin, for example, would have welcomed better management of terms when their surgeons improperly transplanted artificial knees in 47 patients. Instead of using a procedure in which the artificial joints would be cemented with a shank or shaft, they were implanted without any cement. When the doctors read the instructions for inserting the artificial knee, the term non-modular cemented was wrongly translated as zementfrei, which means “does not need cement” in German. Surgeons put in the knees loose, and patients needed a second surgery. 

Having access to a proper translation of the term non-modular cemented along with an example of use in an actual context could have prevented this expensive and painful error. The discipline of keeping such information in an orderly fashion is called terminology management. It is so powerful that it even drives much of the global economy today. And where it’s not used, companies can be liable for tremendous mistakes like those that happened at St. Hedwig Hospital.

Most purchases today start with a term

Whether it’s for a car, a camera or a couch, buyers do their research first before they engage with sales — and they typically start by simply typing a term into a search engine. Forrester Research, Inc. reports that by 2017, 60% of all US retail sales will involve the internet in some way, either as a direct eCommerce transaction or as part of a shopper’s research. Buyers of both products and services are online, connecting with other buyers on social media and evaluating options on their tablets and smartphones. As a result, modern customers are 65-90% of the way through the purchase decision process before they contact sales.

That’s different from ten years ago when we were dependent on a sales person to show us what they thought were our best options. Today, we have all information upfront — provided we find it based on the terms we used in our hunt for the best product.

A furniture maker, for example, might offer what they call an olive couch, but a potential buyer might be searching for a green sofa instead. Successful digital marketers, therefore, also manage the words customers use in their research in addition to keeping track of their own terms. They identify search terms that aren’t as relevant to their business and add them as negative keywords. They link terms to traffic and conversions either in revenue or sign-ups.

Terminology is in fact today’s most powerful sales tool. It enables search engine optimization, internal search within a content management system, external search on the content delivery architecture, web hierarchy, taxonomy and keywords. Terminology management makes content discoverable so that a buyer can make a purchase decision. Good terminology management is gold.

Writers can be wrong

To work, copy text in the source language has to be correct and its terminology unified. That’s surprisingly rare, as product names often fall victim to creative writers. Different treatments in hyphenation, capitalization, intercapping, spacing and use of plural or possessive forms are often just the beginning. Add to these where and how to place company names, model and edition identifiers, and chaos is imminent. These variations may weaken your trademark protection, and may also confuse customers and sales teams.

The master of brand name confusion was, interestingly, Steve Job’s company NeXT. While the company name had always been spelled with a lowercase e, the names of its products changed quite often, such as NextStep, NeXTstep, NeXTStep, NeXTSTEP, NEXTSTEP, OpenStep, OPENSTEP, OpenStep for Solaris, OPENSTEP for MachOS/SPARC and OPENSTEP for Windows. Sometimes users and engineers referred to “OpenStep/Solaris” when in fact they meant OPENSTEP for MachOS/SPARC. The most common confusion happened with OpenStep and OPENSTEP, which were all the same as one might have guessed. As a result, many people just used their personal favorite preference for whatever the latest release was.

In-country reviewers of translated documents often halt or delay marketing campaigns and product releases for the same reason in almost all international companies. They are confused about the right term for a product, technology or mechanism and tend to impose their own preference. If a term can potentially stop 195 nations from signing a historic document, in-country subject matter experts can certainly stop your new product introduction over disagreement on a name.

Boosting MT

If people do not know what term to use, machines are even more in trouble. Translation technology depends on terminology more than warm-bodied translators who can ask questions and do their own research. A machine needs to be told. And while it is true that some machine translation engines learn over time, their effectiveness depends on the quality of the source texts. If your writers and translators use inconsistent terminology, how much value will your engines have?

A translation memory loses its value when it stores multiple segments that differ only in key terms. Translation agencies do not always manage conflicts well, especially in countries with an indirect communication style. They may store multiple versions of translated segments as a result, and hence pollute their database with wrong terms.

Even when they manage their terminology correctly, who verifies that the source term was the right one in the first place? A vast number of terms are being extracted and validated in translation, not during content development. If you really want to know how big your terminology problem is, just compare your translated product names with your international trademark registrations. Terminology management needs to drive authoring, content management, in-country review and translation either by humans or machines.

So, when you roll out a marketing strategy for entering a new geography, make sure your content can be found, has financial impact and is legally sound. If you need to make one investment in global digital marketing, do it in terminology first — before you dream of savings from using translation technology.