Why you will never truly reach your audience with machine translated blogs

Machine translation and communicating with your audience in an intercultural setting
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If you’re blogging to attract potential customers, if you’re emailing with your clients or if you have a website giving any kind of info, pay attention. Nowadays, it is very common that blogposts and websites get ‘auto-translated’, using machine translation such as Google Translate.

Generally, my attitude towards machine translation is: If you want a quick understanding of some information written in a language you don’t know: put it in your favourite machine and have it auto-translated! But that is just not good enough if you’re writing for business.

More often than not, what was put in the machine does not come out as the equivalant in another language. I don’t know about you, but I tend to get some awkward mistakes if I use machine translation myself. But more importantly: as a consumer, I tend to get really annoyed when I read something in my own (Dutch) language on a webpage (I’m thinking: O! They speak my language, they must understand me a bit better), and then it turns out it was translated by a machine, because the words and construction of sentences clearly just don’t ‘work’. I then get a feeling of betrayal somehow, because at first, they pretended to understand me and now it turned out to have been fake?! (Now, I’m thinking more along the lines of: It’s obvious this company doesn’t get me and my needs at all!)

So where am I going with this? Communication is not only about finding putting one word after another.

Let’s see why.

In communication, we all know that understanding of words is not enough. Now, I don’t pretend to know much about the different layers of communication and I’m not telling you something scientific or new, but do read on, as it might help you understand a few things about communicating with your (future) clients.

Let’s say you’re in the habit of emailing with clients or prospective clients or that you’re keeping a weekly blog on subjects of interest in your industry. From the start, you already miss out on some very important communication levels: facial expression, hand gestures, voice intonation and other body language. These are very important components, together making up the message as its being transferred as you intended it. This applies, even when you’re writing in a normal setting, that is, with people speaking the same language and having the same cultural background as you.

Another part of communication is what I call ‘fluff’. That means, when you’re writing a blogpost or emailing to land a new order, you’re not just using the minimum amount of words capable of transferring what you want to bring across. For example, let’s say you want someone to review your paper and you want them to tell you what they thought of it. The necessary words could be:

read – concept – give -opinion

Obviously, no one would write that, especially not to someone they’ve never met face to face. Every culture has rules about how to dress up the words in order to also bring across your feelings about it and the way you want to say it and the respect you want to show the recepient and so on; in other words: you need to fluff up the words.

If you don’t have facial expression and voice intonation and so on, because the conversation is in writing, you’ll need to phrase very carefully in order to bring across exactly what you mean. For example, if you want to be businesslike towards your customer, you will have to refrain from using sentences like “Hi man, d’you wanna check out my shit and tell me what ya think?”

Or, if you’re blogging for a British audience you cannot say, “Check it out and I’ll expect to hear back from you before the week’s out.” Because that would be way too familiar.

anglo eu translationTo explain this a bit more, I’ll give you an example, but remember, my message about machine translation applies to all intercultural communication. What I’ve learned while working with collegues from all over Europe (Iceland to Russia and back), is that the British, who, as we all know, can be quite formal in their communication, are even more so in writing than in speaking. Or, differently put, they need some extra fluff when they write. That way, they want to make sure that what they’re saying cannot be interpreted as impolite in any way. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, you might want to click the self-explanatory Anglo-EU Translation Guide, that’s been circulating in EU-institutions.

The Dutch on the other hand, do this way less. But that certainly doesn’t mean that it’s their intention to be rude! They’re just saying it differently, maybe using a little less fluff.

Now, here – thank you for hanging in there – is the point. Machine translation, such as Google Translate, only translates words. That means that not only are you missing out on all the communication levels when you’re writing instead of speaking, but also the extra culture-related fluff we need, to bring across our meaning.

For example, to show you how this could go wrong, I put this Dutch sentence into Google Translate:

Wil je dit bekijken en het dan terugsturen?

is translated into:

Do you view it and send it back?

And then the other way around:

Could you please review this and afterwards, upon your approval, return it to me?

is translated into:

Kunt u dit en daarna, na uw goedkeuring, terug te sturen naar mij?

If you don’t speak any Dutch, just take my word for it: it doesn’t make any sense either way!

So, my advise: if you want to be taken seriously by prospective clients, readers and other audience,

Please, step away from machine translation!

Curious how I can help? Page & Point offers a subscription based service (under “abonnement voor blogs”), making it almost too easy to have your blogposts appear on your website, translated into English or Dutch by Page & Point.

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Door Liselot Puiman

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