Going international is a big growing up step for US startups, and an important one. The Internet is global and most fast-growing startups like Twitter, Zynga and Foursquare see most of their growth outside the US.
Unfortunately, the common practice by which startups go about translating their product is through crowdsourcing: getting your own international users who already use the product in English to translate it for you. Facebook was the first big startup to do this and they’ve been endlessly imitated since then.
In a recent blog post on internationalizing startups, Andreessen Horowitz Partner John O’Farrell endorses this approach. The post is a great read for startups that want to go global, but on this particular point, he’s just dead wrong.
Why? Simply put, because crowdsourced translations are invariably awful.
Your writer was born in France and is relatively fluent in English. I often compare how software is written in French and English, and I almost always end up using sites in English.
When Facebook opened up translation to French, I eagerly jumped in. In a cleverly thought-out system, anyone could propose translations for what’s going on in the software, and other could vote. Invariably, the translation that was upvoted the most was either grammatically incorrect, awkward, or both. And my alternate translations were always voted down. Why?
Simply because the overwhelming majority of writers and voters on Facebook were 14-year olds with poor French. And that’s what’s going to happen. Crowdsourcing works great for some things. Translating a consumer-facing app is not one of them.
The problem isn’t just with poor grammar and the embarrassment that comes with it. The problem is the importance of copy-writing.
How you label things in your app is vitally important, both to user experience and just generally to your brand. For Facebook, words like “Poke”, “It’s Complicated” and “Friending” have gotten into the lexicon. It’s important to get them right. Crowdsourcing very rarely accomplishes that.
Some will retort that crowdsourcing is cheaper than hiring an agency to translate your product. And the answer to that is that if you can’t afford professional translation then it’s too early to translate. The addressable market for an English-language app is not just the 300 million people in the US, but the 100 million or so English speakers in Canada, the UK, Australia, etc. plus the many, many English-fluent, early-adopter types all around the world. That’s plenty enough to tackle.
When you get there, make sure your app is properly translated.
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