A Babel of Asian eCommerce

Photo by Roberto Faccenda on Flickr

Japanese may be one of the easier Asian eCommerce languages to translate – it has a considerably less challenging alphabet although there are five different writing systems to deal with – but it still poses its translation challenges. Any Asian language will, and not just because of the vastly different alphabet, more so even than European languages with unfamiliar letters or largely different alphabets.

And don't argue!

And don’t argue!

If you’ve ever wondered why Chinese dominates the hilarious world of bad foreign translation websites and memes, it’s because Chinese is one of the most challenging languages for anyone to translate in either direction. It’s not just that the West’s languages are largely alphabetic and Asian languages like Chinese are pictographic with sometimes thousands of characters; the whole structure of cultural and historical reference, communication and thought is completely different.

Photo by lawtonjm on Flickr

Photo by lawtonjm on Flickr

Arabic is no walk in the park either, with its different alphabet, its lack of vowels in writing, unfamiliar sounds, and starting a text at what Westerners would call ‘the end’.

No appetizer for me, please...

No appetizer for me, please…

But hey, guess where nearly a trillion and a half American dollars can come from in the eCommerce world. If you guessed “All the places where the language is least like English”, please join me in a Hai Five!

Asia’s eCommerce potential isn’t just because they’re so populous, but also because many of the countries are just beginning to get online, or adopt mobile, or are losing their wariness of eCommerce marketplaces and payment systems. You can catch the early- to mid-adopters before the waves crest.

So, translating their languages is critically important. Just as you wouldn’t shop in a language other than your own, neither will well over a billion Asians.

Considering how much classroom time it takes to learn many of these languages, proper translation including human translator post-editing will help avoid many of the problems and cultural offenses that occur when you settle for cut-rate translation.

For example: There is a particular four-letter obscene word in English for which there is a simplified Chinese sign (Warning: Not Safe For Work) meaning the same thing in slang. It also means ‘to do’ or ‘dried’, depending on the context, which, in the hands of a careless or inexperienced English translator, can cause gales of laughter from an English speaker in the Chinese market produce section, and the vapors for the fainter of heart. This foreign faux pas features in several examples of Chinese-to-English grocery store translation fails.

Unfortunate translation is not a problem you want on your Asian eCommerce site. Just wait until some of these customers find out what their T-shirts really say in English.

A human translator is good for small translation jobs but for larger ones you’ll want the time-saving efficiency of an enhanced machine translator with post-editing by, preferably, a human being living inside the culture for whom you’re translating. This is where a good Asian partner comes in handy to help navigate the less-familiar back alleys in multicultural neighborhoods and to avoid improper instructions for vegetables.

Want some more food for thought on key items to think about when you’re considering entering the Asian eCommerce market? Download Yappn’s white paper: Three Keys to Success in the Asian eCommerce Market for more information on translation and other challenges, along with the importance of strong partners. Why should you do this? Well, we can think of 1.4 trillion reasons!


Yappn Corp. enhances commodity-based machine translation to a higher level of accuracy reflecting specific commercial and social requirements. For more information please contact sales@yappn.com or call us at +1.905.763.3510 x246.

Written by Nicole Chardenet, Sales Development Representative at Yappn. For more information, visit us at http://yappn.com/ or contact us at sales@yappn.com

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