In an increasingly global business environment, there’s no mystery as to why some firms are making use of translation software.

English may be the language of business, but not everyone speaks it. Not providing a translated site alienates potential customers and can even be considered rude in some cases. That’s why The Roland Collection of Film and Art, a curator based in Harriman, N.Y., has been offering 13 versions of its site in languages ranging from German to Chinese (and “simplified” Chinese) to Korean for more than a decade.

“In my opinion, one has to weigh up between people feeling that you’ve made a gesture as opposed to none at all,” says Anthony Roland, the company’s founder. “People tend to forgive you.”

Computer versus human

Roland uses software services from Systran, a Paris-based firm, and pays annually to keep his sites translated. But Roland isn’t under the impression that such translations are equal to having a native speaker do the work. It’s common knowledge that such computer-based translation services are far from perfect.

“Human language is something that’s in perpetual evolution,” says Reba Sitzer, director of corporate sales for Systran, whose U.S. office is based in San Diego. “No one can wrap their arms around it and stop it from growing.” Even in the best circumstances, translation is more of an art than a science and the exact meaning of words is often left unconveyed (hence the term “lost in translation.”) But because they are based on a finite database, computer-based translation services can be particularly clunky.

Systran offers some options to improve the quality of translation services by letting users modify words and offering specialized vocabulary for particular industries. Nevertheless, many would be wise to copy Roland’s approach. The company’s sites include disclaimers about possible language gaffes. “I apologize in advance on our sites [for translation mistakes],” Roland says.

Other translation options

Roland had other options besides Systran. In addition to competitors like the Israeli-based Babylon, and Sajan in River Falls, Wis., Systran has to contend with free Web-based translation services.

Such services have been around at least since the mid-90s. Sitzer said AltaVista, the search engine, was offering a translator called Babel Fish (the name comes from A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy) in 1996. Sitzer said back then the purpose was to prove such a thing could be done. These days, Yahoo offers Babel Fish for free and Google also offers a free translator called Google Translate, which is currently in beta.

Systran’s services and software start at $49 and run into the thousands (server-based packages start at $1,500), but Sitzer said she’s not worried about the threat from Google and others because Systran’s translators are superior.

Even so, any computer-based translator is still basically a blunt instrument. In some cases, that may be fine. Not everyone uses such tools to translate their websites the way Roland does. Sitzer says that many customers use translators for “gisting” -- surfing foreign sites to get ideas. “If you want a very quick idea of what’s going on, this is sufficient.”