Seven Sins of Website Translation

Today, I had to do some research on the web. As I surfed in this sea of information, I put on my consumer glasses and had a closer look at the translation features of these sites. Working for a global Web Content Management vendor, I was surprised by what I saw. And because I did not get far with my intended research, I decided to at least share with you what to me are the Seven Sins of website translation:

Sin One: Don�t translate at all

If you want to go global, you must translate your website, especially if your native language is not English. If you want to reach minorities in your country, you have to translate at least the relevant parts of your content. Looking at latest research, there is no doubt about it: Visitors prefer being addressed in their mother tongue. And not only that � it makes them see that you care and will most definately lead to increasing conversion rates. In addition to that, you will also do a lot for your Search Engine Optimization, because people tend to search for their native language terms. Managing online content is not difficult anymore, even when it is multilingual.

Sin Two: Machine translation

Although I must admit that I am impressed with the latest automated translations, they are still nowhere near human translations. Especially when you have language rich content, such as articles, you want to make sure that you do not end up with literal translations, but with contextually correct ones. Or do you know what "Morning hour has gold in its mouth" is trying to tell you?

Even more important than idioms and context however is the tone of voice and the message you want to bring across. No machine translation can do that for you, because there is no "conservative" vs. "cheeky" translation alternative. So, make sure every piece of content you care about is really translated by a human translator. Ideally one, who is aware of cultural differences and keeps a consistent brand image. Machine translation by itself is

Sin Three: Translating half of the story

The other day I tried to figure out a train connection in the Netherlands and found myself faced with a websites that had literally half Dutch half English content. Unfortunately, in case of the FAQs, the questions were in English but the answers in Dutch. The contact form had Dutch labels and English tool tips� it was just plain annoying. If you want to do it, do it right.

Sin Four: Auto routing based on location

There are a couple of ways to find out a preferred language for a visitor. The simplest way is to ask them directly upon their first visit and store the information, for instance in a cookie. If you want to go a bit more sophisticated, you can read out the system language automatically.

And then there is the option to check based on location. Oh, how I hate that! I am an expat living in the Netherlands and by now one in three websites decides I must be Dutch. What do I do? I go to the competition and hope they try to be less smart.

This gets even worse when you are travelling though. Earlier this year I was in Japan on business and I tell you, trying to find your way around a Japanese website IS a challenge� which leads me directly to the next sin�

Sin Five: Translating the language options

So, I am on this Japanese website, I detect the usual language switch dropdown (at least I assumed, cause it was in the upper right corner� not that it actually indicated so)� and then� well, a lot of kanji that leave me puzzled. Who would do such a thing? Unfortunately, most of the websites! You want to give your audience the opportunity to find their own language, because they might not understand yours� and the you do not translate the option itself? That does not work :)

There are two valid options online today:

  • Leave everything in English. Even if your visitor does not speak English, the words "language" and their local language most people have learned by now.
  • Even better: use the local language. So, English is English and German is Deutsch and French is Fran�aise, no matter which version you are on.

Both options make sense, help your audience and save you translation cost too. Don't forget: Localizing and translation are two very different things.

Sin Six: Inconsistent translation

A very confusing phenomenon is when you browse through a translated website and same terms are translated differently where ever you go. The German word "Untersuchung" has for instance over 20 different translations in English � and it does make a difference if you translate it into "inquisition" or "exploration" when meaning "research". ("Our latest inquisition has shown that�" might just not put your organization in the right light.)

There are a number of solutions out there today to prevent such inconsistencies by utilizing a Translation Memory System. Briefly what it does is that any translation you have approved will be stored in a Memory System. Whenever the same or a similar translation is requested afterwards, the previous approved translation will be given to the translator as a suggestion. This means, you can keep your choice of terms consistent. Also, it will allow you to work with different translators without getting different tones of voice or messages into your content, because the style of your translation will become clear from the suggestions already. Of course, translation memories can be used organization wide, so that you can make use of the cost and time savings for all your channels, not only online.

Sin Seven: Forgetting other channels

So, you took care of all the above and give me the option to read your content in my native language. I am happy and engaged and decide to register on your website. Eagerly I await the confirmation link email and find it in... English. Just as the following newsletter and reminder to get my 20% off coupon. My initial joy is met by an equally high disappointment. Reusing content across multiple channels and reusing the translations for all channels is no rocket science with a proper multichannel marketing system.


(P.S. "Morning hour has gold in its mouth" is the German equivalent of "The early bird catches the worm")

About the Author
Sonja Keerl
Product Marketing Manager

Sonja Keerl is Product Marketing Manager for SDL WCMS. Sonja has been working with and for SDL Tridion since the early beginnings in 2000. Prior to her current role, she has worked as Presales Consultant for International Markets, Consultant for SDL Tridion Professional Services, WCMS Freelance Consultant and even for the competition.

SDL CMT division