Automated Translation: Are We There Yet?

Published 10/6/15
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We’ve come a long way, but automated or machine translation is still a far cry from human translation.

While it has gotten more sophisticated and continues to improve, automated translation is loaded with serious drawbacks. That’s not to say tools like the Google Translate widget shouldn’t be used – if a DMO or hospitality company acknowledges it’s a flawed solution and is aware of the specifics of why that’s the case, it could be implemented for certain audiences. But understanding those specifics is paramount.

Here are some considerations for using Google Translate or other tools that involve automated translation: 

  • Branded phrases will likely not translate well. If it’s important that you reach the target audience with a clear branded message, human translation is the only way for the foreseeable future.
  • Proper nouns may not translate as intended. Think about destination names, attraction and hotel names, names of mountain ranges and bodies of water, and names of streets. If you were New York, would you want your official destination name preserved? Or translated to Nueva York in Spanish, and Nova York in Portuguese? In Spanish, would it matter if Central Park were referred to as Parque Central? Run your destination’s name and key places/phrases through Google Translate (in whatever languages you’re considering) to test it before applying it on your site.
  • As is well-known and documented, there are likely to be some major errors. These inaccuracies can confuse visitors and detract from your information and your message. While it can be entertaining to read about someone else’s translation gaffes on social media, it’s not so amusing when an embarrassing error hits home. 
  • Your copy will probably convey basic meaning but lose its personality and brand voice. If your goal is the basic communication of information, automated translation may be something you can live with. But if you want to inspire, impress and influence, that part will likely be lost in you-know-what.

On the Google Translate Widget:

Currently, Google Translate cannot be implemented partially on a site – it must be applied site-wide. But overrides can be done in limited cases, for example: (1) a hard-coded modification of homepage text, and (2) “do not translate” code that overrides automated translation when placed manually around certain text selections. Incorporating overrides broadly across a site is so time consuming that it likely isn’t feasible, so it only works when applied sparingly. And it’s not flawless, either. One major drawback to using third-party translation is that if there are errors, you are at the mercy of the provider. 

On Other Solutions:

Other solutions, like Translation.com’s GlobalLink OneLink technology, use a combination of human and automated approaches. There are some big benefits to this approach, but it can be costly. Also, when we investigated this option for a project, the ability to rework translated text seemed limited. In the DMO space – where organizations must listen and react to partners, stakeholders and often international reps – the ability to modify translations can be critical. So be sure to ask about this if partnering up.

What’s the Best Solution?

There is no easy solution – even human translation is flawed. Each DMO’s translation strategy will be based on a unique combo of factors, including budget. But a good best practice is to identify the top markets needing translation and invest in human translation for those. For second- or third-tier markets, automated translation could suffice. Dig into the analytics and keep in mind the big picture: if a market only contributes a tiny percentage of overall traffic, the cost of human translation may not be justified. 

Finally, consider that some international audiences have a functional knowledge of English and would rather read good English than a poor translation. They also prefer to engage with the most up-to-date site, which for U.S. destinations, they sometimes (correctly) perceive to be the English site. We often see this reflected in the analytics – even when a language-specific site exists, international visitors in that market will often choose to visit the primary English site instead. 

The bottom line? If you want to engage your international audience in a way that’s truly compelling and not just comprehensible, opt for human translation. And treat that site like you would the primary site – keep the TLC coming; don’t just translate and turn the other way.