Recently, we had two different clients ask us for assistance in finding mass email tools that have built-in support for multiple languages. They were specifically interested in sending out Arabic and Chinese emails to their supporter list.
If you dabble in the area of internationalization (i18n) in tech tools, then you would agree with me when I say that it is particularly difficult to find a technology solution that can fully support languages like Arabic and Chinese. Generally, tech tools are really good in supporting languages that have a Latin-base (ex. Spanish). They are not that great with a non Latin-based language like Chinese. They are downright poor when it comes to a non Latin-based language that also reads from right-to-left (RTL) like Arabic. And, don’t even get me started on RTL languages that share most characters but not all (Arabic & Farsi/Persian).
Before we delve into the multi-lingual mass email support issues, here is an over-simplified version of the technically complex process of creating emails:
Email written up or “encoded” in a language (i.e. Arabic, Chinese, etc.) –> Sent out by bulk mailer –> Received by email server –> “Decoded” for view or display in your email client.
Side note – Problems in the decoding end of things require a separate post, so I will ignore it for now.
Most email solutions including < insert most eCRM and email marketing tool names here > do not go beyond Spanish for their multi-language support line item in the features list. So, no multi-lingual support, no encoding, no sending out, no nothing.
A small number of vendors and solutions support multi-lingual emails, but it ends up being an interim solution. In the encoding process, they create HTML emails where letters are represented by their numeric character references. This is somewhat akin to using
& in HTML code to indicate &. All HTML-enabled email clients display this fine for the recipient to read. Most email clients, including the browser-based ones like Google and desktop-based ones like Outlook, are HTML-enabled these days. So, most recipients would have no problems with this solution.
The issue with this approach however is what happens in the back-end. This approach means that you can send out only HTML emails and not plain-text ones. If you viewed the source in these emails, you will see a string of these numeric character references. This means that many of the functions that depend on actual letters instead of numeric references (ex. search) will not work. Sort of reminds one of those Hollywood studio sets that look grand from the outside. :)
This approach runs out of its usefulness if your organization wants to (or is mandated by its mission to) provide the full-spectrum experience to your supporters, donors, and advocates who speak other languages. This is becoming an important need. As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, we recently had TWO clients ask for bulk email tools supporting multiple languages. So, hopefully things would change soon. But, much of this innovation will probably originate from regions where multiple languages are the norm rather than the exception.
A note in the “somewhat related” category – European Union has 23 official languages and India has 22. Conflict of interest or disclaimer or something of that sort – My native language is one of those non-Latin-based languages, so I may have “vested” interests.
A note in the related category – If you are developer, here is a slightly dated, but still relevant article on email, MIME, Content-Transfer-Encoding header, etc: http://www.eveandersson.com/arsdigita/asj/mime/