Google Translate. Useful; but not yet as a business tool

There are some epic Google Translate horror stories out there. And this most recent one even made us cringe. I felt their pain, but at the same time, I was battling my own little Google Translate conundrum at home …

You have probably already come across this latest snigger-worthy news which was kicking off in the media a couple of days ago. It concerned the Spanish website which was advertising a festival to celebrate rapini; a rather obscure vegetable. The festival organizers tried to save money and used Google Translate to help them reach a wider audience. Unfortunately, Google translate didn’t recognise the Galician (a fiercely independent area of Spain which has it’s own language variant, Castillian) word for rapini and instead chose the Portuguese slang word for clitoris! You can image the confusion.

The Galician’s are rightly angry. But you could argue that the subsequent mass coverage of the festival may have tempered any outrage from the organizers…

While all this was going on, we were having our own, albeit smaller, domestic Google Translate crisis relating to German homework. It illustrates perfectly how subtle language usage is, and how easy it is to make the wrong call when you don’t have context.

My YR 8 lad has an aptitude for languages; which I suppose is good if Mum works for a multilingual content agency. His French is excellent and his German while good, needs a bit of help. Now, I’m someone who likes children to discover things for themselves so I left him to his own devices with the homework, part of which was to write a fictional letter – in German – applying for a job. A little strange, but I suppose the school work on the basis that at 12 you’re never too young to start thinking about your career.

Our problem occurred when he was signing the letter off. He needed to translate “Write back soon”. Now personally, this is not how I would sign off a business letter but again, I’ll defer to the school on this one.

Based on a quick Google Translate search, he translated it as “Schreib bald zurück”. OK, that’s essentially correct, and even my O Level German told me so. But I was keen to understand whether it was correct business German because in my dealings with German clients as diverse as BMW, Rothenberger and Sennheiser, I knew that usually they prefer a more formal approach when conducting business in writing.

We researched further and discovered that the correct way of expressing “Write back soon” in business German was “Schreiben Sie bitte bald zurück”. The difference is a matter of 2 small words, but the impact cannot be underestimated. Getting the native protocol correct is not only good manners but it demonstrates that you are making an effort to engage correctly with the culture of the person you are communicating with.

And that goes for brands too. Little touches can make a big difference. It is these subtleties that Google Translate cannot process and it’s why it is not yet sophisticated enough to be used commercially or for brand marketing purposes.

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