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But should you use Google Translate for Your Software?

Doug wrote recently on using Google Translate to localize applications, giving step by step instructions on how to get translations automated from their online API.

Rick Strahl had also posted about this earlier in November with ways to do this without needing the API.

So we know it's possible - the question is : should you use it?

Automated translations have come a long way from years ago when you had to use either specialized CDs or babel fish.

Still, the big challenge with localizing internally is ensuring your translations are accurate for its audience. Like Doug, I live in Canada where most government software must support our two official languages: English and French. Sounds easy, right? After all, both languages have been around for centuries - translation must be pretty straight forward. Not so much.

Many moons ago, I worked for a company was delivering the same basic software to two separate government departments. The software needed translations for several terms, one of which was the word "Browse". We asked around, went to the official translation group within each department, and received.... four different translations, all of which could be used, but only one of which would make a different person happy.

Also, consider how the terms are used. On a standard menu, we have File, Edit, Cut, Copy and Paste. A few interface guideline books I've read suggest that menu items should be treated as verbs but in the imperative sense, as though you are telling the computer to do something. Hey computer, "Save"! "Copy!", "Quit!" It makes sense.

However, when translated to French, if I used the imperative, you might see terms like Sauvegardez! Copier! Quittez! (a sample of using imperatives can be seen here).  Using Babel Fish, Cut becomes Coupe ( as in "he cut the tape"). Google suggests Couper. But for the word Save, Google offers Enregistrer, whereas French software typically uses Sauvegarder.

But, according to translators, in French, you rely on the standard verb. So the terms should appear as "Sauvegarder", "Copier", "Quitter". I'm not sure what the practice is in Germany or China or Mexico, but the problem likely recurs there.

Heck, in 1995, when I was in Paris, while Canadian french software used the word "Aide" for Help, French applications there were simply using the ? to indicate the Help menu.

This hasn't changed over time. I'm currently involved in a project where once again, one term comes up with at least 2 or three different possible valid translations.

What's the right answer? If you rely on Google Translate too much, you'll find you run the risk of being Ford offering the "Pinto" in South America, or the LaCrosse in Quebec. Your best bet is to find someone who speaks the language natively to ensure your translations make sense.

Of course, then you might find two people to help to do the translation and STILL end up with 5 possible translations for a single simple word.

It's great that a company like Google (and Yahoo) offer translation sites we can all use. Thanks to the posts from Doug and Rick, FoxPro developers can easily take advantage of it through code. The Google translation API looks like it's making headway especially for menu style terms. But be sure to run it by some native speakers before releasing - it may save some embarrassment later on.

I wonder if it would have been easier on that guy in the Geico ad if he had simply looked up the guinea pig term for "row".


Doug Hennig said…
Hi Andrew.

Agreed. I look at Google Translate as a starting point, not the final solution.

Tamar E. Granor said…
I'm pretty sure the South American car name problem was the Chevy Nova, since "no va" is at least bad Spanish for "don't go."
Andrew MacNeill said…
Actually, if you read the link in the post, the Nova joke for Chevy was a hoax or at least, not a true representation of the problem.

I was surprised as well - which is why I googled for the various ones. I thought the Quebec LaCrosse one was hilarious!

I had heard about a problem with the Pinto though.

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