Human vs machine translation - why Google Translate is not enough!

Human vs machine translation - why Google Translate is not enough!

Unless you were qualified you wouldn’t attempt to install a new gas central heating system in your home, or service your own car would you? You leave those important jobs to the qualified professionals who have the skill and experience to do the job accurately.

It’s the same principle that applies if you are considering translating your website. If you need something important translating, you should always hire the services of a professional translator, who is highly proficient, ideally a native speaker in the target language, and who has the in-depth cultural knowledge of the language and country you are trying to sell your product or service to.

Human vs machine translation – which is best?

Human and machine translation both have their own set of pros and cons. Human translation, for example, offers the ability to understand cultural context and nuances, and convey emotions and tone. However, it can be costly and time-consuming, especially for large projects. On the other hand, machine translation is much faster and more cost-effective, but it may not always be as accurate and can miss the all-important cultural context (localisation) which will gain you trust when launching your eCommerce store in a new territory.

One of the main cons of using machine translation, such as Google Translate, is that it is not always accurate. This is because the algorithm is based on statistical models that are trained on a large corpus of text data. These models can make errors and miss important context, which can lead to mistranslations. This is especially true for single words or short phrases where the algorithm can struggle to get the right 'gist' of the source language and mistranslate due to the lack of context.

Another problem with machine translation is that it often lacks the ability to understand and convey cultural context. This can lead to translations that are not appropriate for the target audience, and can even offend people. For example, idiomatic expressions and colloquial language may not be accurately translated by machines, as these are often specific to certain cultures and regions.

Pepsico fell foul to this when literally translating their campaign slogan “Come alive with the Pepsi generation” for the Chinese market, as it turned out meaning that the popular soft drink would in fact resurrect their dead family! Needless to say this marketing campaign didn’t last very long in China, causing them needless embarrassment and probably thousands of dollars.

Pepsi slogan translation mistake for Chinese market

When do I need a professional translator?

When accuracy is vital and when your brand’s reputation is at stake, any material for public consumption be it a website, brochure, it’s always best practice to translate the content and have it proofed by at least one, but ideally two professional translators – one to conduct the initial translation, and a second to proof the work.

When considering your website translation, where there could be nuanced language which relies on cultural references and metaphors – think about your style, tone of voice and blog content – some of your content for a UK consumer might not make sense to a foreign reader, or even cause offence.

There are lots of cases where a human translator is essential:

Business negotiations: when conducting business with a company or individual who speaks a different language, a professional translator can ensure that all communication is clear and accurate.

Legal documents: legal documents such as contracts, patents, and lawsuits require precise translation to ensure that all parties understand their rights and responsibilities.

Medical documents: medical documents, including patient records and treatment plans, must be translated accurately to ensure that patients receive the correct care.

Technical documents: technical documents such as instruction manuals and engineering specifications require specialised knowledge and must be translated accurately to ensure that equipment is used correctly and safely.

Marketing and advertising: professional translators can help ensure that marketing and advertising materials are translated accurately and effectively for different cultural audiences.

Personal documents: personal documents such as birth certificates, marriage licenses and other official documents are important and need to be translated to be accepted by the authorities.

Travel and tourism: professional translators can help ensure that travellers have a smooth experience by translating menus, signage, and other materials in foreign languages.

In most of the above cases, the worst case scenario is that you could be liable and end up in a legal battle for incorrect or insufficient translations.

Woman at desk proofreading with screen and hard copies

When is it appropriate to use machine translation? 

Even though you might not be able to install your boiler or officially service your car, it doesn’t mean you can’t bleed your radiators or change your tyres without hiring a professional.

Here are some examples of situations where it may be appropriate to use machine translation instead of a human translator:

Casual or informal communication: if you need to quickly translate a text message or a social media post, machine translation can be a useful tool. It can provide you with a rough understanding of the content, even if it's not 100% accurate.

Travel: machine translation can be helpful when traveling to a foreign country, as it can provide translations for common phrases and words. This can help you navigate and communicate with locals more easily.

Non-critical documents: machine translation can be used to translate non-critical documents such as news articles, blog posts or online reviews.

Research or exploration: machine translation can be used to understand the general meaning of a text in a foreign language, to explore its contents or to identify potentially relevant information. But translation apps can’t understand context in language, so they can make mistakes, sometimes resulting in terrible consequences.

Website content or large volumes of text: if you need to translate a large volume of text, such as website blog content or product descriptions, machine translation can be a more cost-effective and efficient option - but tread carefully!

You could use a translation app to help with a first draft, but this should always be passed to a human translator for editing, proofing and localising before publishing the final version to avoid embarrassing mistakes and to mitigate against any risk to your SEO rankings in search engines.

Google’s very own Search Advocate, John Mueller has confirmed that rankings will be affected for your original store language if you have poor translation quality, or only translate some of the content on your subdomains for overseas territories. Read more about how the quality of your languages on your multilingual site can impact each other.

This means it’s crucial to do a thorough job on the translation of your website using professional translators if you don’t want to risk a detrimental effect on your main domain rankings.

machine translation using mobile phone

How can a poorly translated website affect your SEO?

Keyword confusion: poorly translated websites often result in incorrect keywords, hindering search engines from understanding the website's content.

User experience: if a website is difficult to understand or use due to translation errors, users are likely to quickly leave, leading to a high bounce rate, which can negatively impact your website's search engine ranking.

Localisation: search engines often prioritise websites that are optimised for specific languages and regions, so failing to accurately translate your website can result in a lower search engine ranking for not only the foreign site, but your main domain as well. Even if you have your domain structure set up correctly via Shopify Markets e.g. – tells bots that the site is targeting Spain as a territory, and serving the language in Spanish. If then the crawlers detect some of the content remains in the source language (English), Google bots will penalise the site.

Duplicate content: machine translations can result in duplicated or near-duplicate content, which search engines may view as spam and penalise.

Credibility: search engines as well as native speakers of your translated content are more than likely to view a poorly translated website as low-quality or untrustworthy, resulting in a lower search engine ranking and higher bounce rate. Would you buy from a website if the English was scattered with spelling mistakes or grammatical or cultural errors? Poor translation is likely to demonstrate a lack of professionalism and attention to detail, which potential customers could perceive as being reflective of a poor quality product, potentially turning away customers from buying from your store.

Therefore, it's important for businesses to invest in accurate translations, especially in today's global market where consumers may be located in different countries and speak different languages. This can help increase the credibility and appeal of a store, ultimately leading to more sales and revenue.

In conclusion, a poorly translated website that is not thoroughly checked by a human translator can negatively impact your website's search engine optimisation by hindering search engines from understanding the content and reducing user experience and credibility.

Global SEO map

When Google translate gets it wrong! 

Google Translate is a machine translation tool and although it has improved over the years, it is never always 100% accurate. Here are a few examples of the types of errors Google Translate and other machine translation tools can make:

Idiomatic expressions & colloquial language: Google Translate may not accurately translate idiomatic expressions and colloquial language, as these are often specific to certain cultures and regions. For example, translating "to kick the bucket" (meaning to die) would not be translated to its literal meaning "to kick the bucket" in another language.

Cultural context: Google Translate may not always understand or convey cultural context, which can lead to translations that are not appropriate for the target audience. For example, some idiomatic expressions or cultural references might not be translated in the way that's expected.

The quintessentially British tradition of taking afternoon tea, does not translate literally into any language without further explanation. 

The same can be said of the Swedish concept of taking a ‘Fika’ break which Google Translate fails to grasp the important daily ritual of taking time to stop and socialise with friends or colleagues to refresh the brain and strengthen relationships over a drink and small bite.

Google translate examples

Multiple meanings: certain words have multiple meanings, and Google Translate may not always select the correct meaning for your context. For example, the word "bass" can refer to a type of fish or a musical instrument, and the translation would be different depending on the context.

Brand names: In general brand names shouldn't be translated, but depending on the brand the machine algorithms will do exactly that. Even worse, machine translation tools might not always translate brand names correctly, and translate them when they shouldn’t when used in ‘auto-translate’ mode which can lead to confusion and embarrassment.

When translating our own website into Spanish, we took the advice of our in-territory Spanish translators and chose not to translate any reference to our brand name into Spanish after learning that the literal translation would conjure severe negative connotations for any Spanish visitor following a serious incident in Pamplona in 2016, whereby the accused were branded ‘la manada’ (The Herd) by the press. We often refer to collective team as ‘the Herd’, but of course we didn’t want any Spanish audience to associate our team with this, so we made a conscious effort to translate any reference to our ‘Herd’ as ‘nuestro equipo’ (our team) instead.

Google translate herd into Spanish

Humorous translations: Google Translate may produce translations that are unintentionally humorous, which can be embarrassing in certain situations. For example, a serious statement could be translated into something humorous or silly.

Misinterpretation of sentiments: Google Translate may misinterpret the sentiment of a phrase, which can lead to embarrassing situations. For example, a statement that is meant to be a compliment could be translated in a way that makes it sound like an insult.

Technical terms: Google Translate may have difficulty translating technical terms, such as those found in scientific, legal or medical documents. Not only would this make your website look unprofessional, it opens up legal liability, especially if an incorrect translation of a medicine instruction results in causing harm to the patient. 

Grammar and syntax: Google Translate may produce translations that have incorrect grammar or syntax, which can make them difficult to understand.

It's important to keep in mind that while machine translation can be useful in these situations, it should not be used for important documents highlighted earlier where the precision is of paramount importance. In those cases, it's always best to use professional human translators to avoid getting into hot water legally, and to avoid embarrassing faux pas which are always a risk when using machine translation alone.

5 reasons never to rely on machine translation of your eCommerce store alone 

  1. Inaccuracies: machine translations often result in grammatical errors and inaccuracies that can negatively impact your website's credibility.
  2. Lack of cultural sensitivity: machines lack the cultural knowledge and context to accurately translate idioms, humour, and other culturally specific expressions.
  3. Missed context: machines may not capture the intended meaning or tone behind a phrase, resulting in a translation that misrepresents your brand or message.
  4. Technical limitations: some languages or characters may not be supported by machine translation software, leading to incorrect or missing translations.
  5. Legal implications: inaccurate translations can lead to legal issues, such as misrepresenting terms and conditions or product specifications.

What if I have a limited budget but want to go global with my Shopify store?

If you have a large eCommerce store with thousands of products and content, it can be cost prohibitive to pay for hundreds of hours of manual translation of the whole site at once.

Despite its limitations, machine translation is becoming increasingly popular due to its speed and cost-effectiveness, so the combined approach of using both machine and human translation to prepare your store for global success could be the most cost effective and accurate solution.

Shopify merchants can now take advantage of the native Shopify Translate & Adapt app which was released in September 2022 to work alongside Shopify Markets and offers to 'auto-translate' the first 2 languages free of charge.

Translate & Adapt app

Its automatic translation functionality is powered by the Google Cloud Translation API, but will not translate 100% of your store. Metafield list types, Tags, product images, URLs and legal content cannot be translated.

Shopify also recommend proofing before you go live with your new store after using their apps automatic translation feature in the Translate & Adapt manual "Before you publish translations to your storefront you should review them for accuracy." 

Our top 7 tips for adopting a Hybrid approach to translating your Shopify store

 1. Use an app to auto-translate a first draft

In cases where time and budgets are limited, we would recommend installing a reputable translation app such as Shopify’s Translate & Adapt, Langify or Weglot to conduct a first draft auto-translate at the click of a button, then hire an expert at Shopify website translation and localisation to conduct a thorough proof reading and on-site editing of all content prior to launch.

2. Identify & prioritise the content that needs to be proofed

Depending on the size of your site, you might want to prioritise the main products and specific collections over blog content which is most appropriate to your target market. Some content may not be feasible or difficult for you to export to your target market so you may wish to hide these collections from your overseas audience altogether,  (flammables, electricals, FMCG or medicines could require additional export permits). 

You may choose to only translate certain blog content which may be interesting to your target audience – there’s little point translating and proofing an article about an in-store sales event or competition if your overseas customers can’t take part.

If in doubt, check with the experts who have experience in international eCommerce and who know your target market and ask for help with prioritising. They will know what is absolutely essential and what could be disregarded altogether or lower priority in terms of translation accuracy.

 3. Take extra care with legal content. 

Legally binding documents such as website Policies and Terms & Conditions will not be auto-translated by any app due to potential misinterpretations – the app creators cannot guarantee it will be 100% accurate and don’t want to accept any liability for errors in translation and interpretation of legalities, so these will need to be exported and fully translated and proofed manually by a native translator, ideally who has experience in working on legal translations for websites.  

4. Consider your sector and products

The translation proofing project will still take time depending on the size and complexity of your site and the actual products you sell – it’s much easier to proofread translated content related to everyday products such as fashionwear or furniture than it is for a site selling technical or niche products such as performance exhausts, or specialist concrete flooring equipment.

For specialist products, the translator will likely need to do more research to gain a full understanding of the products and specifications in their own language if it is not an item or sector they are not familiar with, to ensure they choose the right translation for each product. 

5. Translation style guide

Even if you sell a common everyday product that is easy to identify, the language used to describe product or technical specifications may be more difficult to grasp the exact meaning for even the most experienced native translator. 

As part of your globalisation strategy, it is good practice and could save you time, money and avoid any costly 'lost in translation' issues if you provide the translator with a translation style guide to enable them to understand your products and your intended tone before they begin any proofing or translation work. 

Your translation style guidelines will help to ensure brand consistency in tone of voice, and assist an external translator to understand your brand identity, positioning within the market and values, which can be helpful when translating to ensure they get this right for your target market. This guide could be an adapted version of your brand guidelines, and should contain details about your target audience, tone of voice, formatting preferences, and a terminology glossary. 

The glossary usually contains an alphabetical list of special, unusual or technical words or expressions and their meanings, and can help the translation process by clarifying the meaning of the term or phrase using the simplest language possible. It can also tell the translator which terms should never be translated (e.g brand names), and specifics like whether you would prefer to use the formal or informal use of the pronoun 'you'. 

It may seem like a time consuming task to create such a document, but you only have to create this once and it can be used for future territory roll-outs in. In the long term having a comprehensive translation style guide will eliminate mistakes and offer peace of mind that your translator will fully understand your business and their work will align and convey your brand perfectly, helping to maximise your global potential return on investment from launch. 

6. Localisation - leave this to the experts

There are many aspects to get right when it comes to localising your website content for the intended market. Don’t forget currency symbols and how numbers are displayed differently in different countries, offering different payment methods and shipping options to suit the market, calendar displays, and other cultural considerations such as fonts and colours which can imply different things in different countries. Did you know that the colour red signifies luck and prosperity in China and India, but conveys danger in most Western cultures?

Also consider that specific countries have their own nuances - the Spanish spoken in Spain is not the same as in Latin American countries. The word for a car in Spain 'un coche' translates to 'un carro' depending on the location in Mexico, but 'un auto' in Peru.

None of these important localisation features can be detected by a machine translation tool – only a human who knows the language, country and its culture inside out can ensure these critical elements of your website and proposition are going to resonate with your intended new audience to maximise your return on investment upon launching into a new territory.

7. Double check before going live.

Always have one or two native speakers check the main pages for snags and final errors before going live with your translated content once it is in situ on the store. This is crucial to ensure accuracy, to maintain your brand image, avoid any unwanted legal issues, enhance the user experience, optimise for search engines, and to promote cultural sensitivity.

Two people proofing translation on laptop

Is Google Translate accurate?

If all you need to do is to translate a few words into your chosen language ahead of say, a holiday, then Google Translate is probably enough for you. However, what it can't replicate is the nuances of the language that may be needed when it comes to translating a website. While Google maintains the accuracy of its tool, this accuracy depends on a number of factors, like the language pairings you are choosing to compare against each other.

One thing's for sure, you simply can't substitute a native speaking human - not yet anyway!

Final thoughts

In conclusion, machine translation can be a useful tool, but it is never a substitute for human translation. Both have their own set of pros and cons, and it's important to consider the specific needs of your project before deciding which type of translation to use. In cases where accuracy, cultural context, and tone are important, human translation is likely to be the better choice.

Google rankings will be affected for your original store language if you have poor translation quality, or only translate some of the content on your subdomains for overseas territories. This means it’s even more important to do a thorough job on the translation of your website using professional translators.

If you are a Shopify merchant you can already get one step ahead of the competition with Shopify Markets built-in (International SEO friendly) functionality to help even the smallest of eCommerce stores go global from a single store.

Ready to boost your existing international SEO strategy or embark on a new international expansion journey?

Get in touch now for more help with your global eCommerce strategy.

About the author

Jo Silverwood

Jo Silverwood, Head of International

Our Head of International is a Hull University graduate with a BA in Hispanic Studies and lived in Spain for a year. Jo speaks Spanish, Italian, French and is currently learning German.
She has 20+ years combined experience in Communications, Marketing and export sales, combined with a passion for languages, exploring other cultures and worldwide travel.

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