The Real Costs of Using Google Translate

When we talk about ‘localisation’ or ‘website translation’, it means more than just a simple word-for-word conversion into the local language. A good translation is often a very creative process, as words and phrases must be rewritten and re-arranged to find a suitable translation which makes sense and appeals to the local market. It’s more involved than merely copying and pasting the text into Google Translate, which often puts companies at risk of damaging the value of their brands and even their reputation. Errors in translation, misspelling, or just the wrong context will cost them way more than the cost of hiring a good translator in the first place.

Although Google Translate and all those instant translation tools are free and this brings a great advantage to many people, most of the time, all we get is a word-for-word translation (that is, bad translation) that doesn’t consider the context. Unfortunately, bad translations are surprisingly common. These two real examples I came across recently would make my point clearer:

  • Li is the founder of a Chinese startup. Google identified the name ‘Li’ which is the name of China’s former tennis champion, Li Na. The tennis player’s name is all over the startup’s website whenever the founder’s name Li is mentioned. Such negligence is embarrassing, confusing, and could get the startup into serious problems of misrepresentation.

  • A fashion e-commerce website launched a new Chinese version using Google Translate (or a lousy human translator who did a simple copy-and-paste from Google Translate). For the ‘New Arrivals’ of the brand’s latest collection of shoes, the Chinese reads ‘新來港定居人士’ which literally means ‘people who have just come to settle their lives in Hong Kong, often from mainland China’. It’s a very specific term used in Hong Kong and to put that in a fashion site is entirely out of context.

Human translators surely cost more than a free instant tool and often requires a few days turnaround. However, real people can analyse every word and phrase they are working on, to make sure the most suitable translation is given to fit the context of the contents. As well as this, human translators often specialise in a particular area, so they have a detailed knowledge of the relevant terms. They can structure the translation in a way that appears natural and meaningful for the target audience.

Brands live or die by their appeal in local markets. It’s tempting to go for the cheapest rates or get the work done for free, but then we can expect results which can be categorised along with the above examples. It is, however, perfectly okay to use Google Translate or other free tools for documents which are not very important or if all we need is to get the gist of a document. In this case, Google Translate is a brilliant tool. But if we’re talking about translating contents for business and branding, I would stick with real people who understand the real context.

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