Lost in Translation

Lost in Translation
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Lost in Translation

4 reasons for not using Online Translation Tools for your website.

There are very few people in the industrialised world that need convincing of the influence of the Internet, and the need for suppliers of goods and services to take active participation in this media. So with the increasingly global reach of the Internet, it only stands to reason to have a multilingual website for your business. Which leaves website owners with two choices – 1. assume everyone speaks your language (the old adage of how to spell ASSUME applies here!) or 2. adapt, and offer multilingual websites.

But for those electing to offer multilingual sites, is one of the myriad of web-based translation tools, such as Google Language Tools, Babel Fish and so on – the right solution? The temptation to cut corners one of these cheap, or even free, services is immense. Why pay for a translator if you don’t have to?

If you want to prevent accidental hilarity or unintentional offence, you must use web-based translation tools with great care. Here are some good reasons as to why you should do just that – investing in high quality and organic translations rather than ‘cheap and cheerful’ online resources.

1. First Impressions

It’s often said that ‘you never get a second chance to make a first impression’ and this is even more relevant in the online world. The Internet generation has learned to speed-read websites, honing in on key words that matter and getting the information they need as fast as possible. As a result, the average time spent on your Home page is less than 30 seconds.

So when your visitors are faced with glaring grammatical mistakes, words that are out of context, or sentences that simply do not make sense, you’ll have lost your potential sale. And your competitor’s website is just a click away!

2. Contextual Language

Regardless of which language you are communicating in, words are used to impart emotional as well as absolute values. These subtleties are linked to general attitudes, common culture and shared experiences, all of which form linguistic values which are generated by those who speak a specific language as their mother tongue or primary language.

In each case, we use particular words to illustrate, signpost and transmit information – as well as to communicate on an emotional level with the reader. Direct translations, or tools which rely on direct translations, cannot and do not take into account this ‘contextual use’ – both in terms of content or emotional level.

3. Common Use

There are many ‘cultural’ usages of words that are very different to a direct translation of the same word! Let me illustrate this idea by using a real example. In English (British Version) we might use, or search for, the phrase ‘country hotel’ if we want to find a hotel in the countryside, offering peace and quiet in a rural setting. We might also use the term ‘rural hotel’ to search for similar type of property. However, the general perception of a ‘country hotel’ is a somewhat grander place than a ‘rural hotel’, which is generally perceived to be more rustic. There is a subtle but yet profound difference between these terminologies, which translates into a vastly different expectation for the users.

Translate either of these terms into French using Google, or any other translation system, and they will correctly translate them into ‘Hotel de la Campagne’ and ‘Hotel Rural’, both of which are technically and linguistically correct in French. However, if you were using such a tool to translate a client’s website you would fall into a big trap – as a native French Speaker (Parisian not Canadian version) will not use either of these terms to search for a hotel of this type. Why not? Nothing more than cultural and common use, but also the subtle differences in expectations is also lost in this direct translation.

4. Norms or Slang

In everyday language we use many slang expressions that in truth have a different meaning, and convey a different message, to the actual meaning of the individual words. For example, if you said “I have got to run now” in Spanish, having translated these words using an online tool, you may find that you would have some surprised faces in the room. Why? Because if you make a direct translation of this sentence word-by-word, you will find that you have just told everyone that you are about to experience the height of sexual pleasure!! Not the impression you would want to leave behind in a meeting . . .

To give you a further example, in Spanish when someone wants to say they have a vision, they say “tengo una ilusión”. But if you translate this into English it will read “I have an illusion” – not the same meaning at all, and in fact quite the opposite!!


In essence, simply speaking a language is very different to being emotionally and mentally ‘plugged into’ a language. We can of course roughly understand what the other person is saying, as long as they use simple forms and do not load the language with emotionally charged words. But language is not just about understanding the words, it’s also about being fully aware of the context and the emotions that each word transmits.

Language sets man apart from every other living creature on earth and this has, in essence, been mankind’s biggest achievement. Language enables us to express, communicate, pass on and preserve our thoughts, emotions and experiences – from one location to another, and indeed from one generation to another.

However, language also creates the biggest barrier between people and cultures, so it is also our greatest challenge in creating a truly ‘international’ world. To simplify this process to the lowest common denominator, which is what online translation tools tend to do, is as foolhardy as trying to explain everything on earth in the fashionable 20 second ‘elevator pitch’.

Web-based translation tools have many shortcomings, some of which I have pointed out, but these are to be expected as the rules and algorithms on which they are based make certain assumptions around the use of language. In reality, most native speakers do not stick to the absolute grammatical rules of their native language in either written or verbal communication. For example, these tools are completely confused by the use of passive sentences, so there is a very real danger of miscommunication or misunderstanding – all of which can cause serious offence!

None-the-less if you feel compelled to use automated tools, you need to take care in order to prevent accidental hilarity or unintentional offence. My advice is that these tools should be used with great care – and only if you have a good command of your native tongue, plus a basic understanding of the target language. If you are going to use them, there are a few basic rules – keep sentences short and do not use passive sentences; avoid reflective nouns and perfect past, or perfect future for that matter; and do not use colloquial expressions, or ‘fashionable’ expressions that cannot make the transition between languages and cultures.

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