Becoming a true World Wide Web

The federal government is trying a new way to close the digital divide by providing Web sites in other languages — and not just in Spanish, the second most frequently spoken language in the United States.

As growing numbers of Americans speak languages other than English, the government is discovering that translating Web sites and documents into multiple languages is good for customer relations. It also provides a good medium to help close the gap between those who are Internet-savvy and those who are not.

But there is another reason for the trend. Last August, President Clinton signed an executive order requiring agencies to develop a plan to help those with "limited English proficiency" get the same services as English speakers. The deadline for submitting plans to the Justice Department was Dec. 8, 2000, and that left many agencies scrambling.

Other agencies — such as the Census Bureau and the Social Security Administration — already were ahead of the curve. A search of FirstGov.gov, the government's Web portal, turns up more than 4,000 Web sites and documents in Spanish. And information in other languages, including Chinese, Korean and Vietnamese, flourishes online as well.

"There are so many people who don't speak English or speak it haltingly. We know that because we ask the question on the census," said J. Paul Wyatt, senior editor at the Census Bureau.

In fact, the Department of Health and Human Services, which offers information on subjects ranging from aging to cancer, knows it, too.

It has launched Web sites in more than a dozen languages, including Arabic, Laotian and Portuguese. The Food and Drug Administration's Web site about the safety and labeling of cosmetics is available in Chinese, French, German, Japanese and Russian.

NASA unveiled a new Web site for Spanish-speaking space fans. It delivers the latest news about NASA's Space Infrared Telescope Facility, the fourth and final mission under NASA's Great Observatories program, which included the Hubble Space Telescope. And the Environmental Protection Agency has a Spanish link on its home page, including a resources page on how to prepare and respond to environmental disasters.

Providing Spanish content is "a step in the right direction for us at [the Energy Department] to provide a one-stop-shop page for the Hispanic community," said Kathy McShea, DOE's director of consumer information.

James McNeil, founder, chairman and chief executive officer of McNeil Technologies Inc., a Springfield, Va., firm, described the language explosion as a growth industry. More than 300 languages are spoken in the United States, he said, but many federal agencies haven't "made the leap" to providing their information in alternative languages.

Part of the job is "educating people on how to localize their sites so the sites won't be offensive," said McNeil, adding that his firm is the only U.S. company that translates and localizes information in 150 languages.

Localizing the sites can prove tricky. McNeil, for example, recalled the recent well-publicized "Got Milk" ad campaign by the American Dairy Association. Well-known in the United States for advertising milk mustaches on celebrities, it proved a flop in South America when it was literally translated as "Got Lactating."

Last year, McNeil's firm did $25 million in business designing and managing Web sites for many federal research, defense and civilian agencies — not just handling their translations, but also making content understandable in a reader's language and culture.

Yet the demand for translation is growing so fast that others in industry also see it as an opportunity. In March, IBM Corp. will begin marketing software that instantly translates Web pages, office e-mail and online chats from English to a host of languages. Priced at $10,000 per processor, it translates at a rate of 500 words per second.

"Much of the content of the Web is in English, but the population using the Web is becoming non-English speaking," said Ozzie Osborne, general manager of IBM voice systems.

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