Websites increasingly cater to a multinational clientele. Many, if not most, international consumers do not speak English, and are most likely to visit and buy from sites that offer services in their own language. Closer to home, U.S. domestic companies see the advantages in offering Spanish language services to the thriving Hispanic community. Ideally, marketers turn to professional translation services. Others opt for translation software.

Translation Trickery

Translating marketing slogans and content is always fraught with peril. Even professional translators can mess up, such as when Kentucky Fried Chicken famously translated its “Finger-Lickin’ Good” catchphrase into Chinese, which resulted in the less-than-appetizing slogan “Eat Your Own Fingers.”

Translation software produces a literal translation of your original content. Unfortunately, this doesn’t take into account idioms, slang, and other language idiosyncrasies. Nor does it take culture into account that an expression or company name that seems perfectly harmless in English can transform into a vulgar or insulting expression when translated into, say, Arabic or Russian. Certified Translation services use native speakers to avoid cultural misunderstandings.

Sometimes translation software makes subtler mistakes. Consider the following English sales content: “On sale for a limited time, this exquisite evening gown ensures you’ll make an impression. Comes in black, red, and green.” Translate it into Spanish and you get the following: “A la venta por un tiempo limitado, este vestido de noche exquisita asegura que va a hacer una impresión. Viene en negro, rojo y verde.”

Now all things being equal, translating the Spanish back into English should give us our original text. Instead, we get this slightly off-kilter version: “On sale for a limited time, this ensures exquisite evening dress that will make an impression. Comes in black, red and green.” Does the Spanish look as odd to a native speaker as the reconstructed English looks? I don’t know, as I don’t speak Spanish — and therein lies the problem marketers face with translations. We have to trust the software knows what it’s doing.

Out of curiosity, I translated the same text into Chinese and back into English. What I got back was “This exquisite evening dress, ensure that the sale for a limited time, you will be impressed. With black, red and green.” Now translating back and forth like this undoubtedly compounds translation errors, but the point is simple: if you cannot speak the language, you have no idea what you’re presenting to your target audience.

Basic Research, Early Drafts

Does this mean that translation software has no place in a marketer’s bag of tricks? Not quite. Translation software can be invaluable when performing preliminary market research. Running other people’s content through the software won’t give you fantastic results, but will allow you to glean valuable marketing information.

Marketers may also run their own content through translation software, and then pass the results onto a human translator to polish and fix any mistakes. This can save money as software handles the time-consuming first draft, with the human translator providing “touch up” services.

Some subjects, of course, are not worth the risk. If you’re dealing with scientific, medical or legal translation, a professional translator is essential.


This is a guest blog from Michelle Rebecca who is a blogger with a passion for the Internet and new communication technologies. She’s constantly intrigued by how people can better market themselves through various communication technologies, specifically translation software.


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