Is Auto-Translation Dangerous?

Last Updated January 8, 2014

Well, maybe.

If you’re accessing a foreign website, you’ve probably tried the one-click Google Translate approach to understanding the content.  You can likely get the gist (what are they selling, silverware or shoes?  What is the founder eating in that picture?), but the inaccuracy rate can often outweigh the convenience.  The essential facts might come through, but the message (the quality of the silverware and why people love it, or exactly how much the founder enjoys blackberry pie) may be lost entirely.  The facts are important of course, but the deeper meaning is what connects us on a human level, and in the best cases tells us a relatable story.  Without that emotional connection it’s difficult to create trust and move someone through the buying cycle.  So auto-translation could certainly be dangerous to your bottom line, in the long run.

Sometimes you feel like a nut…

But what about more serious errors?  In Canada we have strict labeling guidelines that mandate product information in both English and French. For food items, for example, did you know there are two separate words in French for “nuts” that you eat and “nuts and bolts” from the hardware store?  This sort of mistake is pretty silly on the surface, but could possibly turn serious if you confuse someone with a nut allergy.  And as much as your French-speaking prospective customers might laugh about your little gaffe, they’re probably not buying your product either.  It’s a fairly safe bet they’re laughing at you, not with you, and the underlying feeling you’ve created is that you don’t really respect or care about them. When you consider that there are now 7 million native French speakers in Canada, that’s a pretty serious impression you’re creating.  Even a careful translation process can result in mistakes, so imagine the possibilities if you decide not to have a human translator check your work. If you’re very unlucky, you might find you actually offend people and cause a mountain of negative PR, like Coke did last year.

Assessing your website auto translation risks

So auto-translation probably won’t endanger your life or anything, but it could endanger your business.  The fundamental truth is that if you rely entirely on it for marketing materials, a website, or any other business communication, rather than a process that incorporates the human touch, you’re treating a certain segment of your customers badly.  It’s high-risk behaviour that should definitely make you think twice.

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