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Anyone for fruit salad?

By Julie Fry, 

Machine translation is an asset if used correctly. But don’t be too hasty, staking your company’s reputation on free online translation is a risky business. Julie Fry explains why…

I was passed a list of countries recently that had been translated into English. Nestling amongst the seemingly innocuous list was one country I had never heard of before, “Fruit Salad”. Obviously I’d heard of fruit salad but I never knew it was a country between Bulgaria and Greece.

Any Italian would happily explain to you (as they did to me between giggles) that “Macedonia” is a type of fruit salad in Italy. Strange but true.

When you work in translation you see strange anomalies like this all the time and two words always spring to mind “Google Translate”. That’s a little unfair as other online translation tools are capable of providing equally amusing mistranslations. The Internet abounds with examples that you can read through and chuckle over on your coffee break. The laughter would quickly cease however, if you discovered that it was your company that was opening its new offices in Fruit Salad.

Surprising then, that so many companies are still willing to stake their reputation on a free online translation tool.

The Internet is littered with examples of companies who have signed up to free online translation tools in order to provide their company website in other languages. But after spending time and money developing your brand, selecting the correct tag-line and sales technique, can you then trust a piece of software, however powerful, to translate it for you? If you are aware that machine translation is not as accurate as human translation, do you simply accept that the translation won’t be quite right?

A culture of instant gratification has made us extremely impatient when it comes to the Internet. However much you want that bookcase from Homebase for example, if the product details on their website fail to load, you’ll be typing IKEA into the search bar of your browser before you can say Rumpelstiltskin.  According to an article in the Guardian newspaper, it is estimated that 32% of consumers will start to abandon a slow site after just 5 seconds!

If this is true, how long will a potential customer spend trying to decipher a badly translated website?

In fact, it’s not the quality of the translation on your website that you need to worry about, it’s the quality of the translation on your competitor’s website that really matters.  Surveys such as those undertaken by Oneupweb or GetElastic show that clearly stated shipping and pricing information is the most influential factor for a customer when making a purchase decision. If this information on your website is ambiguous as a result of the way in which it has been translated, but clear on your competitors website, you could be looking at a lost sale.

The second most important influential factor in the customer’s decision to purchase, is the perceived credibility and trustworthiness of the website.  It would appear then, that the old adage, “Never judge a book by its cover” doesn’t hold true when it comes to websites.  A customer will judge you on the way your website looks because it is the only factor they have to judge you on in the first instance. I have backed away from many an Internet purchase simply because a supplier’s website was covered in primary colours and looked like it had been made using a FrontPage template from the late 90s. But I’m not just being finicky. When I navigate away from one of these websites, whatever the savings on offer, I actually feel like I’m protecting myself from what could potentially be a bad customer service experience.

If your competitor has spent time and money making their website look modern and having it translated into various languages, and yours has a simple link to an online translation tool, what impression does this give about your credibility?

On a more practical note, one of the problems with linking your site to an online translation tool lies in the fact that they provide instant translation. This doesn’t sound like a problem, in fact, it sounds like a clear plus point, especially if your business is constantly updating the information on its website. The translation provided by the online translation tool however, is not static. A new translation is generated every time a customer hits the “translate this page” button; therefore the translation produced is not something that can be easily corrected if errors are spotted. You can make some words on your site exempt from translation, such as your company name or other brand names but where phrases or paragraphs of information have been mistranslated or misinterpreted, these errors will be displayed to your customers every time the “translate this page” button is clicked.

The only way to correct an error like this would be to re-word the English to make it easier for the online translation tool to provide a better interpretation of the original text. Re-wording the English however might be time consuming and ultimately change the crux of what you are trying to say about your brand. Besides which, as a non-native speaker of the language, how will you ever know whether the changes you have made have helped or hindered the message that you are trying to get across.

Online translation tools have come on in leaps and bounds over the past few years. They “learn” the anomalies in a language by comparing translated documents online. This means that the more translated documents there are online in a certain language, the more comparisons the tool will be able to make, and the better its translations in that language will be. There are a large number of documents in Spanish on the web so online tools tend to provide good Spanish translations. For other less common languages however, like Portuguese, you have a higher probability of finding inaccuracies in the translation. This is because there are fewer documents online in these languages for the tool to compare and therefore “learn” from. If you are planning to offer your website in one of these less common languages, it might not be worth looking into online translation tools at all.

In conclusion then, online translation tools are certainly very useful. They can help you to get “the gist” of any document in any language, instantly, without having to reach for a hefty bilingual dictionary. But although these tools might help your customers to get “the gist” of your business or your products, when it comes to generating actual Internet sales, is “the gist” ever going to be enough?

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