Translation Styles: Why Automated Translation is Never Acceptable

Translation Styles Contents

Welcome to the second article in our eight-part series on how to get the most out of your translation. This series of articles is intended for readers who need to get their message across clearly, in a foreign language. Specifically, it deals with issues related to Japanese to English and English to Japanese translation.
This table of contents will be updated with links as I publish each new article.

  1. How Important is Translation Quality, Anyway?
  2. Translation Sin 1: Automated Translation
  3. Translation Sin 2: Non-native Translation
  4. Translation Sin 3: Direct Translation
  5. Translation Necessity 1: Consultation
  6. Translation Necessity 2: Communication
  7. Translation Necessity 3: Trust
  8. The Final Product

Recap: Why Your Translation is Important

In the last article, we discussed the fact that, to a foreign-language speaking customer, your translated material is likely to be responsible for your company’s first impression. We also covered the fact that, despite what you may have led to believe by your “Japanese 101” class and/ or your family trip to Kyoto last summer, in the real world, broken attempts at a foreign language will not earn you any points. Unlike a face-to-face conversation, a flier or website has to hold the reader’s attention against a myriad of alternatives.

One of the first episodes of Friends featured the girls talking about how you can learn everything you need to know about a relationship from the first kiss. Well, a customer is going to learn everything they need to know about your company from that first translated flier or web page. As a fellow translator put it: if you’re cutting corners on your translation, the customer is going to assume you cut corners everywhere else, too. And speaking of cutting corners:

Automated Translation: The First Deadly Sin

For instant amusement, go to nearly any Japanese government website, such as your local city hall, and select the “foreign languages” option. In most cases, there is no actual English (or Chinese, or Korean, or Portuguese) version of the website, so this option will engage the site’s auto-translate function, rendering the entire page into hilariously bad, and frequently incomprehensible, Engrish.

When TranSenz translates various Japanese certificates, we frequently have to refer to cities’ websites in order to be sure we have details, such as the romanization of the mayor’s name correct. There are so many special kanji pronunciations, that it’s impossible to guess with any certainty. On a recent check, we visited a city hall site from Fukushima, where the mayor’s name was “Tomizuka Yuukei.” However, instead of simply rendering his first name into romaji, the auto-translate function went a step further and displayed his name as “Tangible Tomizuka.” Ah hah, this mayor is no ghost! In fact, with a name like that, he just might be a superhero. Or a boxer.

Closer to home, TranSenz’ home city of Otsu also uses auto-translation on its website. So, if you were to look up information, for example, on how to make a reservation to use the “Sakamoto citizen combative sport place,” you would be instructed,
“There is a way of 2 which apply or (2) they’re an application at any time by a (1) annual user adjustment meeting for use application method.”
Thank you. Everything is perfectly clear, now.

What an Automated Translation is Really Saying

If you put a machine generated translation out in the public arena, you are sending a clear message- and it’s not the one you intend. The content of your translated material is probably not coming across at all, but this is: You are stating “I don’t care about you.” That is the message any reader is going to get. Why? Because automated translation is the laziest possible action. You went to google, and copy/pasted a block of text. It will be immediately obvious to any reader because, no matter how rudimentary a person’s skill is in a language, automated translators will make mistakes that no human could ever make.

If a business uses automated translation, it is not only telling their foreign language customers that it doesn’t care, it’s sending another, equally dangerous message: The business is saying it doesn’t have the capability to deal with customers in that language. Use of automated translation clearly indicates that nobody in your organization has any ability in the target language whatsoever. If they did, they would not allow the use of the automated translation! So, a customer who sees the translated material knows right away that the business cannot communicate with them or answer their questions and, what’s more, will likely screw up their order.

Why Businesses/ Governments Use It

Automated translation requires no cost or effort- and you get exactly what you pay for. Particularly in Japan, it has been my experience that organizations are being pressured from above or outside to “internationalize.” In response to Japan’s declining population, central government agencies are telling local governments that they have to appeal more to foreigners. Since the pressure is coming from above, with no corresponding desire from within the organization, the bureaucratic response is, “How can I get this monkey off my back in the quickest/ cheapest manner possible?”

In other organizations, “internationalization” is used as a buzzword. It’s one of those fuzzy goals, that managers think is a great idea, even though they have no idea what it means. These are also companies where the CEOs give annual speeches that mention “the future” several dozen times, while day-to-day operations have not changed in form or substance since the mid-80s, and the overwhelming organizational mentality is stuck in pre-bubble modes of operation.

Organizations resort to automated translation (or non-native translation) when they’re going through the motions for form’s sake, but in reality, they just don’t care. It’s actually kind of convenient, because that’s the precise message that automated translation sends.

Legitimate Uses for Automated Translation

Yes, there are legitimate uses for automated translation. I can think of two. The big one is to use it to translate foreign language material into your own language to get a basic overview of its subject. Researchers may use automated translation this way to determine that the subject material they’re looking for is (probably) on page 3, so that they can send page 3 off for a professional translation. That is a reasonable way to avoid having to translate the whole book in order to get at a single chapter. Similarly, a business that receives an email in a foreign language can run it through google to determine whether it’s legitimate or spam. If it’s legitimate, they can send it to their retained translation company (That’s TranSenz, right?). It should go without saying that it would be a huge mistake to respond to the email based on the automated translation, since there’s no way to guarantee its accuracy.

These two examples have one thing in common: the automated translation is for your eyes only! Nobody else will ever see it, so the person who uses the automated translation software is the only one who has to suffer through reading it.

The second legitimate use of automated translation? Deliberately generating garbled text in order to sell comical t-shirts.

Avoid Automated Translations, on a Budget

Here it comes: Contact TranSenz! We will help you come up with the most cost-effective, accurate translation because we believe that a small-scale, high quality translation is much better than the alternatives: a large-scale automated translation or nothing at all. We will work with you to determine exactly what message you want to communicate to your foreign language customers, then help you get that message across in as few words as effectively possible. If we return to the Otsu City website example above, that site has literally hundreds of pages in Japanese. Translating each of them professionally would be a huge commitment of time and money. However, if we determine what information is actually necessary to international residents and visitors, we could shrink the task down to under 20 pages- and most of them can be shortened from the Japanese versions. (Mayor Koshi, if you’re reading this, call us!) It would also be easy to set up a system to handle your foreign language inquiries.

There is no excuse for automated translation in the public domain, when it’s so simple to avoid. If you don’t care, don’t translate it to begin with. If you do care, then do it right. Speaking of “doing it right,” our next article will discuss the reasons why you don’t want to leave it to one of your employees who happens to have decent foreign language test scores, in Translation Sin 2: Non-native Translation.

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