Lost In (Machine) Translation

Last March, I shared a theory of mine that most Hispanics expect Spanish-language web sites to be poor quality and, as a result, use the English-language version of a site even if Spanish is their preferred language. Expectations tend to be low because often the Spanish-language version of a given web site tends to be inferior to the English version.

With Google's free machine translation software, Google Translate, showing up on an increasing number of web sites, I'm afraid that Hispanic online expectations are at risk of declining further.

Google Translate is Free. Or is it?

Many marketers and web managers looking to reach Spanish speakers online view Google Translate as the silver bullet. Copy and paste a little snippet of code into your web site and, presto, your web site is now available in Spanish (or any other language). As a result, you can now find Google Translate on many web sites including those of countless federal, state and local governments.



What you will also find on these web sites is a lengthy disclaimer that prominently states that content translated by Google may not be accurate, reliable or timely. These disclaimers also completely absolve the web site owner of any and all liability that may arise because of inaccurate machine translation. I want to be very clear: web site owners are consciously using a system to translate their web sites and, in the same breath, acknowledging the system may not provide accurate, reliable or timely results.

I believe the cost of potentially inaccurate, unreliable or dated content on any web site is simply too high for my clients. Even the smallest translation mistake can destroy the credibility of a web site and the organization behind it, severely impacting valuable goodwill.

So no, Google Translate is not free. In fact it can be very costly.

Effective Communication Requires a Human Voice

Eventually, technology may be able to provide near-perfect translations but, today, professional communications experts are needed to produce accurate, reliable and timely translations. It is true that most professional translators leverage machine translation as part of their process. Once a machine provides a systematic conversion of text from one language to another, a human is needed to deconstruct the context of the original message and provide an appropriate and meaningful communication. There is no way to build valuable relationships with your customers without involving talented writers.

Clearly, Google's powerful brand, strong credibility, and free service have lured many marketers to use Google Translate.

I wonder if Google's brand would be so powerful if it used only machine translation to write the copy on its sites.

6 comments about "Lost In (Machine) Translation ".
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  1. Ralph Tegtmeier from GmbH, July 8, 2010 at 10:37 a.m.

    Couldn't agree more: deploying machine translation merely to cut some corners indicates utter cultural cluelessnes and insensitivity. It looks amateurish and cheesy and any company that gets hurt by implementing it has deserved to go under.

    I've been trying to put this across for many years myself (e.g. in my widely republished article "Don’t Lose Your Foreign Web Site Visitors by Insulting Them With Brain-Dead Translation Services" and I believe that every effort to make Web entrepreneurs aware of the issues involved deserves full support.

    Good job - and please keep it up!

  2. Jarobin Guerra gilbert from SapientNitro, July 8, 2010 at 12:09 p.m.

    Thank you for posting this article.

    As someone who has works in advertising on the account side and a speaker of three languages (the other two being Spanish and German) I also couldn’t agree more with what you said.

    The idea of using a machine or service to “translate” what you mean in your ad or on your website to resonate with a consumer is both lazy and somewhat offensive to those for whom it is intended. I believe it would seem very off putting to the customer, consumer and user of your product or media that you are trying to attract.

    We as marketers must remember that machines do exactly what they are asked which is literally to “translate” words but they do not interpret ideas, idioms or cultural resonance. As this happening all over the world, we as marketers must strive to be better to the digital patron as well as the physical one.

    once again, thank you for touching on this

  3. Steph Hackney, July 8, 2010 at 2:22 p.m.

    I could not agree more. Just because a reader's expectations are low does not make it ok to meet them! A U.S. business owner wouldn't offer a site in a foreign language to English-speaking customers, so what makes it ok to do this to speakers of other languages, unless of course you don't value these customers? And if that's the case, why offer translation at all? It's really a matter of who you want to attract as a customer - do what's right for them, and do it well.

    As a world traveler, I have made every effort to learn enough of the local language in every country I have visited to be able to get information, ask questions and share information requested of me. It was almost always appreciated by the locals, many of whom made a wonderful attempt to speak in Engish with me. Because of this effort, I had some amazing, unique experiences. Perhaps we could apply to that our business offerings and reap the same rewards?


  4. George Rimalower from ISI Translation Services, July 9, 2010 at 6 p.m.

    Great article, thank you. As a professional linguist, I wholeheartedly agree. Making language meaningful requires more than just a literal translation of the content. Slang and colloquialisms cannot be accurately translated by a machine. Icons, cultural symbols and even colors all have different meanings for different language groups. And even the same language – Spanish, for example – will vary according to the particular audience: the meaning of a word or phrase may differ from Mexico to Guatemala, and even from Florida to Texas or California. While technology certainly has streamlined the process, true communication can’t happen without a professional human touch.
    --George Rimalower, ISI Translation Services

  5. Sebastian Aroca from Hispanic Market Advisors, July 11, 2010 at 11:39 p.m.

    Good post! That's right, Google Translate is free to use but can be very costly for businesses. Free automated machine translators can only provide partial accuracy because they perform simple substitution of words in one natural language for words in another without taking the context or intended meaning into account. When translating important documents, especially Websites, serious companies that care about their brand and reputation should work with companies that offer professional translation and SEO services.

  6. Wilson Camelo from Camelo Communication, July 16, 2010 at 3:50 p.m.

    … actually your theory has already been proven in the AOL Cyberstudy, which pointed out that Hispanics recognize the disparity between the availability of English and Spanish-language content. They perceive English sites as more comprehensive in part because they know the Spanish content is not. Further, the study showed that Hispanics often prefer English content and mistrust Spanish content because Spanish-language sites are often little more than literal translations of English content. In fact, only 3% of respondents found Spanish sites more trustworthy and useful than those in Spanish.

    The point I did want to add is that automatic translators are bad, and always will be bad. I don’t necessarily agree that technology will eventually be able to provide near perfect translations. Why, because we develop communication specifically for a target audience based on insights, experience, research, tendencies, etc. to get them to act in some way i.e. purchase a product. That message may not be relevant to other audiences even if it’s in language and free of grammatical errors.

    Check out my blog posting that addresses both of these points.

    Good post! Regards!


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