I have been part of the content creation community for most of my career. I started as a course developer in the 1980’s, continued on as a technical writer, and have been writing either for customers or for my company ever since. I feel pretty confident about my knowledge of creating content and I believe I have enough experience to speak pretty effectively on the topic.

About a year ago, I started learning more about the world of globalization, internationalization, localization, and translation, also known as GILT. And while I know an awful lot about guilt, I am admittedly a novice on GILT. So today I am going to go completely out on a limb, way out of my comfort zone, and talk a bit about translation. This is a very scary and daring move for me, so I ask for your patience. Go easy on me with this. 🙂

I attended a conference yesterday with many people heavily involved in localization/translation. At the end of the conference, one of the localization experts posed the following question:

  • What are your thoughts regarding publishing translations of content that are not perfect? Are ‘good enough’ translations better than no translations at all?

A very lively discussion ensued, with lots of very knowledgeable people sharing their thoughts. Most of the people were not content developers, they were localization and translation experts. Many had specialized knowledge of machine translation (MT) systems.

As a content developer, the thought of having anything less than a perfect translation of what I’ve written seems blasphemous. Afterall, I likely spent days/weeks/months working on the document. I did my research. I wrote. I refined. I edited. I refined again. And then, when I decided the content was as perfect as it was going to be, I declared it finished. The thought of having my writing translated into multiple languages and published without verification seems unconscionable to me.

On the other hand, as I really think about the issue, it is obvious how expensive it is in both dollars and time to translate content into multiple languages and make sure that the translations are accurate. There is definitely an appeal to running the content through MT software and simply publishing what comes out, without post-editing. And for people who cannot read English, I suppose a case could be made that having some type of translation, even poor translation, is better than no translation at all.

Here are some things to think about when publishing ‘good enough’ translations:

  • Thought #1: Start with the end in mind. Write your content so it is easy to translate.

First and foremost, the idea of publishing translations without post-editing points directly to the need for better English source to begin with. If the source content is written in a way that makes it easier to translate, then the translations will naturally be better from the beginning. Most writers do not write with the notion of translation and localization in mind. They create extremely wordy sentences using structures that are not easy to translate. These sentences usually contain all kinds of idiomatic phrases that make perfect sense to native English readers. Try to run these sentences through MT and…well…garbage in is going to produce garbage out in 27 different languages.

  • Thought #2: Decide which types of content are acceptable with  ‘good enough’ translations.

Next would be deciding what types of content are eligible for ‘good enough’ translation quality. For example, it would be a very bad idea to have translations of safety warnings published without verifying their accuracy. You don’t want to tell someone to stick their finger in the electrical socket by mistake. You also don’t want the content you publish to cause more tech support calls than if you had never written it to start with. That would be counterproductive and expensive for your company.  That said, there are probably a variety of things that won’t injure your readers or blow up their systems.

  • Thought #3: Globalization is young and, therefore, very forgiving. It won’t always be this way.

In the scheme of things, the world has not been flat for very long. It was an historical blink-of-the-eye-ago that we weren’t reaching a global audience with our communications. Our products weren’t sold in 127 countries. We didn’t have to think about reaching readers in hundreds of languages.

In a sense, we are in the infancy of mega-multi-language translation. (OT: How many compound noun phrases can I possibly use in this post? Let’s not translate it, okay?!) Because of this, people reading the ‘good enough’ translations are going to be quite forgiving. They will be grateful to have any content in their native language, no matter how poorly translated it might be. As time goes on, and products and services are provided to an even broader community, I think the expectation for quality in every language will increase. In another 10 years, what would have been acceptable ‘good enough’ quality will become unacceptable. People in China (for example) will demand content that is as accurate and readable as people in the U.S. demand.

When I read documentation that has errors, I immediately think less of the company that created the documentation and I will go as far as returning the product if I am unable to use the instructions to make it work. I think the expectations in other countries will move towards the same expectation over time.

I realize that not everyone is going to agree with my thoughts on this topic. In fact, had I been daring enough to chime in at the conference, I definitely would have been in the minority. Most people were in the ‘good enough’ is better than nothing camp. And that’s okay. As I said, I’m new to this world. Coming from the opposite end of the content creation spectrum, perhaps I see things in a different way.

Val Swisher
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