The question posed in the headline is one that should be considered carefully. The answer is not a simple yes or no, as there are many factors that should be taken into account.
Presumably, you’re asking yourself the question because you are expanding your business into foreign markets. This means, first and foremost, you have to carefully examine the online habits of your future target market. If you are looking to tap into the European market, a 2011 Eurobarometer report done by the European Commission might provide some initial insight.
Responses from European citizens to the questions put forward by the European Commission showed that 9 in 10 internet users in the EU always visited a website in their own language, provided they had a choice of languages. A slim majority of respondents (53%) would accept using an English version of a website if it was not available in their own language. More than 4 in 10 (44%) respondents agreed that they missed interesting information because websites were not available in a language they understood.
These finding were reported in the fourth section of the report, titled “Opinions about the availability of websites in several languages”, and is a clear indication of the fact European internet users, at least, would prefer to use a website in their own language.
Should you decide, following this and your own investigations, that you do in fact want to translate your website, you’d next want to consider whether it is financially feasible. Translating an entire website could be costly, and there is a chance that your business cannot afford it right now.
Don’t even consider doing the translation yourself or by using an online translation tool. That is unless you have an exceptional knowledge of the language you intend to use. Online translation tools are incredibly dangerous, because these tools have not been equipped with grammar rules, exceptions to those rules, nuances or accepted slang terms. It is highly likely that you will get an unintelligible mess back when you type a sentence into an online translation tool.
The best choice for your business and its reputation would be to use a professional translation agency. This type of agency would hand your website over to someone with expert knowledge of the language you want to translate your website to. This person will be aware of any vocabulary updates, slang or idioms, so the text you’ve used will contain its original meaning. The other advantage to this is that the text on your website would be in a language that’s up-to-date and readers will thus be able to relate to it. Use outdated forms of speech and people will be able to recognise that you are not familiar with them in an instant. This will tarnish your reputation.
Of course South Africa presents its own unique situation, because of our 11 official languages. So perhaps you don’t want to expand internationally, but do you want to target a wider audience base within the borders of the country. For instance, you could do a Sotho translation if you want to target the Free State, or a Zulu translation to take advantage of the KwaZulu-Natal market. The process would stay the same – familiarise yourself with how these target audiences browse the web and then look at whether you can afford to translate your entire website.
Whether the issue of expansion relates to international or local markets, it could be worth your while to investigate only translating parts of your online marketing strategy to start off with. Perhaps you can begin with your PPC ads or a monthly newsletter. It’s better to have something than nothing available in someone’s mother tongue if your research shows that is the language they prefer to be addressed in.