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Translation for Websites

Post published in January, 2011

In my halcyon days as a translator of Japanese, I once read that “even good translations are like tapestries viewed from the back.” I thought this apt because it was damn hard to do a good translation, and even the good ones were really reconstitutions of the same content in a new skin. There was nothing really direct about them.

Fast forward 25 years, and I am being asked if we can use software to provide translation for websites and if we could then, as if by magic, have full multi-language websites. From a programming standpoint, it is not an overwhelming challenge to build a multi-language site. The challenge remains, however, in generating a good translation.

Just to see how it might work to use an auto-translator, we installed the best-known one on our own website and gave it a spin. It was pretty cool to be able to switch the entire website from Cyrillic to Japanese to German at the click of a button, but the coolness turns out to be entirely superficial. When we actually stopped to read the resulting translations, they were REALLY bad and the source of much mirth around the office.

Translation for Websites

Not surprisingly, it seems that the automatic translators are unable to deal with the subtleties of nuance and context which is what makes translation hard work even for humans. Google seems to be working on the problem by “borrowing” actual human translations that exist on the web and using that as a means for the software to statistically “learn” to build a translation. It’s not there yet, and on our test, even such seemingly simple things like “work” for our portfolio of recent work was auto translated into Japanese as “job,” because that is the most commonly used translation, I assume. Technically, that’s correct, but totally wrong in this context. And this was not just an issue for more distant languages like Japanese; our Germanic linguistic cousins in the audience were equally amused by the translations.

The translators are good, therefore, as a personal tool if you are trying to figure out something you cannot read on a website. It will give you an idea of the intellectual thread that courses through those pages and you will recognize that translations are flawed, but you will be happy to know something of what is written. However, as a translation tool that the creators of websites offer up to their readers, it is not recommended.

The Star Trek style universal translator has still not arrived on our virtual doorstep.

So, having a multilingual website is still essentially no different from having a multilingual anything. The Star Trek style universal translator has still not arrived on our virtual doorstep. You have to devote the resources, time and attention to have humans do all the translations and, if you want to impress anyone, you will have to do them well.

So we are able to do a Chinese version of the Pei Partnership Architects website only because they have all the content in Chinese. And they already have the mechanisms in place to translate new material as it is added to the site going forward.

Other clients have also raised the question, and so far we have opted to select certain basic sections of the site that we will make available in multiple languages.

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  1. merryweather says:

    There’s a big interest in learning foreign languages in modern times. You get people trying to understand Japanese from watching Japanese videos—time spent to immerse passively. These are good times.

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