Lost in translation

Enterprises and vendors are losing out without widespread localisation of their products to the local market, argues Eliot Beer.

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By  Eliot Beer Published  March 3, 2008

For various reasons (not least our survey), the ACN team has had a lot of contact with firms in Saudi Arabia over the last few weeks, and - unfortunately not being Arabic speakers - we have had the odd communications breakdown.

Many people (almost exclusively Westerners) coming to the region for the first time seem surprised by the fact that not everyone in the Middle East speaks English. Expectations are formed by cultural references in films, and by the predominance of English speakers in expat hubs such as the UAE and Bahrain.

The majority of these surprised non-Arabic speakers soon learn that the Middle East - and especially countries such as Saudi Arabia - is one region which has not succumbed to the total linguistic hegemony of English, although some take longer than others.

Once people understand that Arabic is the language of much of the region's business, they can make provisions to communicate effectively - for example, as the ACN team has done, by enlisting the help of Arabic speaking colleagues; or in the longer term, learning Arabic.

But this realisation can apparently only come to direct exposure to the linguistic realities of the region. While many outside the Middle East understand on some abstract level that not everyone speaks English, this often doesn't translate (no pun intended) to actually adjusting products and services to suit local markets.

This is not a unique problem to the Middle East, but the region does suffer by having a language that is - to be completely blunt - not well-represented in North America, as English, French and Spanish all are. The region also lacks the headline-grabbing nature of China or India, and the subsequent boost those countries' various tongues have had.

While the issue of localisation varies in significance across the market - understanding a box of Corn Flakes is perhaps less crucial than understanding a DVD player - it does have particular significance in the IT sector.

Most of the big IT vendors - in common with the largest global brands - have taken localisation on board, and now produce software, services, technical documents and support in dozens, if not hundreds, of languages - and Arabic tends to be high on the list.

The problem comes with smaller vendors and service providers, often the ones which provide niche software for a particular sector or application. The language support in these systems is often limited to English, Spanish and French - and scope for third party localisation may be limited.

This presents something of a conundrum for the industry. On the one hand, local users may feel no particular need to investigate technologies that have no Arabic facility - they can use systems from the Oracles, Microsofts, HPs and Dells of the world. Yes, they may miss out on some useful features - but they will get by.

On the other hand, vendors may baulk at the significant investment - and technical challenges - which may come from implementing an interface in a different and non-Roman-scripted language. They may - and do - decide to pass over the Middle East, and forego the potential market, which, after all, is not that large.

Both these attitudes are unfortunate. Enterprises are effectively settling for second-best (and not even that), while vendors are shutting themselves out of a market that, while small, is growing and will continue to grow dramatically.

Even more unfortunately, there is no obvious or straight-forward solution. In the absence of a standard platform for producing localised versions of systems, there is no realistic way for third parties to produce translations - and this ignores the issue of working with a vendor to produce an accurate translation, and avoiding the stereotypical bad-VCR-manual syndrome.

One way that change may happen is for more smaller vendors to immerse themselves in the Middle East market - as, reassuringly, more are doing every day. As with other expat arrivals, the importance of Arabic will soon dawn for new entrants. And there is, of course, nothing to stop larger regional enterprises from trying to persuade vendors to produce an Arabic version of a system.

For ACN's part, while we lack the resources to produce the magazine in Arabic, we are doing what we can; we are now offering our Saudi Arabian IT Survey in Arabic, as we will with any future surveys as well.

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