Using Google Translate as your content strategy partner

A link to this post on  using Google Translate (or not) popped into my Twitter feed this morning and I was just talking to my wife (a Spanish Language tutor and occasional translator) about using Google Translate. Together, those two events hatched this post on how it Google Translate can work for you.

Is Google Translate good enough?

In Bill Swallow’s post, he answers that question with it “depends on three core content facets: audience, subject matter, and quality.A comment to that post included a link to the results of an evaluation of machine translations from international English to Spanish, Norwegian, Welsh, and Russian, which showed, “the machine translations of international English are usually satisfactory.” Having worked on content intended for translation, the use of  international English, should be emphasized.

Translating a web site with Google Translate

My wife has a client who is a sole proprietor with a simple website. Her client wants to expand and serve more Spanish-speaking clientele. As a small business, her client doesn’t have a lot of resources to support the web site–keeping it up-to-date in one language is more than enough work for her client, adding another language is basically a non-starter.

The content on her client’s site is somewhat technical, so running it through Google Translate produces marginal results. When my wife asked for some ideas, I suggested that rather than translate all the pages to create a Spanish version of the site (what her client originally asked for), she review and edit the site’s English text to improve the results that Google Translate produced. That way her client would need to maintain the website in only one language (English) while providing the required content for the Spanish-speaking clientele her client was hoping to add.

(Update: Feb. 2, 2018) After my wife showed her client a sample of how editing just the English text of the site could serve customers in two languages with a single site her client was thrilled that she could get the results she was after and not have to pay her web designer to duplicate the site in a new language.

Does this work for technical documents?

Very much so, if you:

  1. Write the original content in international English to make it easy for Google Translate to do the right thing.
  2. Have a translator (or at least a native speaker) of the target language review the results periodically to make sure it’s being translated correctly.

What does this mean for technical writers?

Technical writers will need to become fluent in international English. After reviewing some recently published technical content, it might mean that the folksiness or trendiness of the language used might need tempering as that does not translate as well. Your native speaker review can provide  feedback on this.

You don’t need to strip all the personality from your site. Rather, consider what content really needs that personality and make sure that both the language and the personality are localized appropriately. Not all content need this attention, in practice, only a few, high-level and highly trafficked pages need it, so it’s not as bad as it might sound.

You might also need to enlist the help of an editor. Having a consistent tone, vocabulary, and usage are key to relying on using machine translation as part of your content strategy. Incorporating an editor into the content-production process can help insure consistent quality of both the English and the translated versions over time.

Bottom line

For many use cases, Google Translate can help you reach larger and international audiences without too much additional burden. However, it’s best to make sure that the English content is written to support this from the start. Edited existing text to support this approach after the fact is possible, but a more costly approach.

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