Last year, a team from one of Google’s Help centers traveled to 11 countries for in-person meetings with journalists, copywriters, translators, bloggers, and other language experts. We wanted to get a detailed picture of why English source content so often goes awry in translation.
One of the clearest takeaways?
Wording that is perfectly fine in English can be quite troublesome in other cultures. More often than not, our “friendly” touches backfire. Badly.
In English, that’s a friendly reminder, right? We’re just trying to help, right?
In a word, “Nyet.”
Here’s how the Russian language experts perceived it:
“Remember that …” is wording that we all associate with Soviet propaganda. It has no role to play in modern communications.”
“Remember that…” reeks of our Soviet heritage. We all remember going to school and seeing those posters ” – meaning propaganda posters like the one pictured. It roughly translates to “Be very attentive! Remember that the enemy is crafty and tricky!”
Sentences written in passive voice created even more mistrust. Again, a whiff of deceit:
“This is how government communications are written. When you see passive voice, you know they’re trying to pull wool over your eyes. Someone is trying to trick you.”
“Passive voice is a way to avoid responsibility. It’s the governmental format. It’s like ‘there’s nobody who is in charge. Things just…happen.'”
Perhaps most surprising to us was that the reviewers were far from reassured by “reassuring” language in our articles. In every case, it had the exact opposite effect than what we intend. “Friendly” phrasing like “Don’t worry, your emails aren’t lost,” or “it’s OK, you can still do this or that” *created* stress rather than alleviated it.
“Don’t worry” sounds strange, like out of the blue. It makes you anxious.
“I wasn’t worried until you said, “Don’t worry.”
“Why do you assume I’m worried? It’s an invasion of personal space to assume you know about my feelings.”
Well. Didn’t see that coming.
Yet another problem with our friendly touches is that they’re often U.S.-centric colloquialisms that don’t translate well. In Indonesia, the reviewers were baffled by the phrase “rest assured.” The translation – something sleep-related – made no sense.
And the ubiquitous “Aw, snap” error page that you’ve surely seen (probably a time or two too many)? It translates to a meaningless “Yeah!” in Indonesian and even more inexplicable “Snap-on button!” in Spanish.
Based on our international research, my team updated our style guidelines to address what constitutes friendly or reassuring language. Help Center writers and editors are no longer using “remember that,” “Don’t worry,” and similar phrases in new articles, and we’re editing them out as we come across them in old ones.
Fortunately, there’s no downside to zapping these words and phrases.
- They don’t translate well, as we learned.
- They’re usually unnecessary words, and we heard from every country that our Help articles are much too long. We don’t lose any meaning by cutting them.
- They sometimes come from out of nowhere, creating an abrupt change in tone.
(As an aside, when we say “Remember,” we imply that we’ve already given users a particular bit of info. In most cases we haven’t.)
For more findings from the translation research conducted by Google and consulting partner #Insitum, take a look at these:
- Our biggest translation problem has been hiding this whole time
- To improve translation, wield the period and the (typographical) bullet
- We hate your whimsy
- Top trouble-making terms
- Tip sheet: Writing for translation
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- “Friendly” English Phrases Can Go Horribly Wrong in Translation - October 19, 2017
- To Improve Translation, Wield the Period and the (Typographical) Bullet - April 5, 2017