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Oct 8, 2010 | 7 minute read

Lost in Translation: Can Machines Ever Replace Humans?

written by Linda Bustos

Studies show Internet users spend more time on websites in their own language.

It shouldn’t surprise you that nearly 90% of web users who speak little to no English ability spend most or all of their time on sites in their own language. But 60% of international users who can speak English still prefer sites in their own language. And more than 60% prefer buying from sites in their own language. 65% who speak little or no English are willing to pay more for information in their own language.(compared to 50% of those that speak English fluently).

So if you’re serious about aggressive international expansion, you need to at least consider offering content in different languages. And one of the decisions you have to make is whether to use machines or humans to do the job.

Types of Website Translation

MT (Machine Translation) – Software that translates word-for-word from one language to another. (Google Translate is an example, but there are also enterprise versions like Systran.)

CAT (Computer Aided Translation) - Machine translation that also stores phrases and idioms in computer memory for more accurate interpretation (like “word processing” or “flash drive.”)

HT (Human Translation) - Just what it sounds like, translation by actual people. Good HT is performed by native speakers fluent in both languages, rather than a person who simply uses a dictionary.

Dangers of machine translation

With word-for-word translation, there is far too much risk that your message will be muddled. We've all seen the extreme examples of poor transaltion.

Exhibit A:

This chocolate is the confectionery of the bitter taste made to the adult sake. If this chocolate is included in a mouth, it will melt mellowly in a mouth. And the delicate scent of beer will charm you.

Exhibit B:

Skal Water is a milk-based soft drink. Tender to your mouth. Nicer to your mind. Skal Water always takes you to the cow-mooing meadow.

While these are funny examples, it’s not funny on your website. MT can garble your branding, value propositions, product descriptions and user generated content.


When the Coca-Cola brand was first introduced to China, it read as "kekoukela," meaning "bite the wax tadpole" or "female horse stuffed with wax" (depending on the dialect). Coke had to research 40,000 characters to find the phonetic equivalent "kokoukole," or "happiness in the mouth." Coke was lucky, but not all brands can fluke out like that.

Slogans and taglines also translate funny. KFC’s "Finger licking good" translates to "Eat your fingers off" in Chinese. Mmmmm.

Staples’ "That was easy" reads as "Qui a été facile" with Google Translate, but Staples' marketers massaged the slogan to read "Rien de plus simple" (nothing easier) on its French Canadian site. Though it’s likely a better translation, it loses the punch of the English version. Instead of connecting emotionally, expressing the relief of finding everything you want fast and easy with Staples, the French version makes a claim impossible to live up to - nothing easier. I can think of lots of things that are easier than buying office supplies online. Like taking a nap.

Perhaps "Ça, c'était facile" would maintain the magic of the English tagline?

Value Propositions

The clarity of your value proposition is so important to conversion. (If you don’t believe me, ask Dr. Flint McGlaughlin or Bryan Eisenberg). Do you trust MT to communicate your value propositions well?

Product Descriptions

Product descriptions must inform and persuade to sell product – there’s no room for embarrassing “lost in translation” goofs. And if you want to inject some flair into your product descriptions, you're bound to get some goofy results.

User Generated Content

Customer reviews, question/answer and forum posts can be even harder to translate with machines because they can use even more colloquial language (and misspellings) than product copy. Look what happens when you translate this Japanese review for Panda Security into English with Google Translate:

"Avast! Your team, hello. Check your anti-virus software on the internet, after reading the reviews, looked at information about Avast. And really like the simplicity of the Avast wife and I both completed the update The voice tells you with confidence that at Avast. need to press several buttons to clear the screen. In addition, interruptions or frustrated, and without having to slow down, computer literacy also found that the best use is made of. ... Please continue doing a good job. Home is free to offer me very grateful for the software."

With all the dangers of MT, the first choice is always to use human translation. But HT comes with an enormous cost – expect to pay $0.15 to $0.25 per word for professional translators. This can really add up when you have a large catalog or need to translate into many languages. Does that mean you have to use HT or nothing at all?

How to reduce your HT costs

Use native speaker to proof-read

Use MT primarily, but have a native speaker proof-read all copy before sending to production. Proof-reading is much faster than composing copy from scratch, and you can hire a speaker without copywriting skills, which is easier to find (and potentially cheaper).

For example, a German site could machine translate and have the proofreader correct for grammar structure.


Neu! Dateiverschlüsselung.
Schützen Sie Ihre Dateien mit der Dateiverschlüsselung vor neugierigen Blicken.

English (MT):

New! File encryption.
Protect your files with the file encryption from prying eyes.

English (corrected):

New! File encryption.
Protect your files from prying eyes with file encryption.

Use translation management systems

Rather than pay skilled translators to perform menial tasks like uploading and formatting files, use a “globalization management” service like GlobalSight or Idiom Technologies to manage your HT workflow. For example, these tools also improve efficiency with “translation memory,” which remembers edits and corrections made to tone or branding to maintain consistency with corporate guidelines set out by the centralized ecommerce team.

Change tracking is important, as you may only need a small portion of the text to be re-translated as you update copy on your native language site. Rather than pay for the full page, globalization management will specify which portions need attention.

Leverage manufacturer’s descriptions

Ask if your manufacturers have content in other languages you can use on your site.

Though we always say using stock manufacturer descriptions is a big no-no for SEO reasons (duplicate content), the cost savings of using translated copy provided by the manufacturer may outweigh the risk of duplicate content filtering (as you still have a chance to appear in search engines, which do not always filter out duplicate entries). It’s still a good idea to have a native speaker review for accuracy - the manufacturer may be using machine translation!

Be choosy with UGC

Rather than translate every comment and customer review, choose the most helpful reviews (chosen by the community through thumbs up/down or by manual review) to cut down on volume. Start with your most important products, and work your way from there.

Keep a simple site, stupid

IKEA demonstrates its Swedish common sense by keeping its descriptions very short. It makes it very easy and cheap to translate.

But we know that detailed product descriptions are crucial to conversions – customers want and crave them. IKEA can get away with minimalism, but not all e-sellers can.

How to use MT without looking dumb

Despite its disadvantages, MT has potential as long as you realize its limitations and adjust your site accordingly.

Don’t use idioms – at all

If you’re going to rely on MT, make sure your site copy is scrubbed of idioms. This is tedious and may make your site copy very dry and personality-less, but the MT output will be better. The other option is to use CAT and program all the jargon and idioms your site contains. If you’re only translating to one language, it might be worth taking the idiom-audit time and investing it in HT.

Use a Google Translate widget

If you use MT, never let the visitor hold you accountable for its mistakes.

JR Electronics and offer the Google Translate widget. It's branded as Google's, so the visitor understands it’s not perfect, and goofy output does not reflect badly on your company.

More than words: image translation

Images can also communicate the wrong things if culture is not considered.

Gerber learned this the hard way when it introduced baby food to Africa. Since many can’t read, African companies typically put pictures of what is inside on the labels. You can imagine what Gerber’s smiling, chubby, white baby implied.

Another example is rude gestures. Thumbs-up means “alright!” or “good job” in North America, but it’s like giving the finger in the Middle East. You wouldn’t want to sell this SpongeBob beanie baby to such markets:


  • Machine translation is risky.
  • Human translation by native speakers who understand the cultural factors of the target country are best, but expensive.
  • There are ways you can cut costs on HT, using proof-readers, translation management systems, manufacturer’s translated copy, translating only important content, and writing less words.
  • MT is not totally taboo – if you are careful about idioms or offer a 3rd party translation tool like Google Translate, you can get away with it.

Next post we'll break down the nitty gritty about international usability from home page to shopping cart. And don’t forget to reserve your place in our October webinar: Tapping into the International Online Consumer: What Every Enterprise Needs to Know About Going Global, happening on October 27 at 9am PST/12pm EST.