Beyond Google Translate: Multilingual Design & UX
Language is complex.
This can be easy to forget as we go about our days with a near subconscious feel for our native languages. The staggering diversity of worldwide dialects makes interrelational communications one of the most entangled systems we have.
Translating one person’s thoughts into another person’s mind involves a system so complex and nuanced that even—gasp!—Google Translate isn’t always up to the task. So before you over-rely on this ubiquitous plugin for your brand site, you’ll at least want to take steps to make your multilingual website more functional for your users.
So, how should you tackle a task of this nature?
Adopt a translator’s mindset
While Google Translate continues to improve, it probably will never fully replace human translators.
Despite tremendous strides in the algorithm and software in regards to detecting tone and context, there isn’t any code out there that can capture cultural nuances understood by a human. For example, have you ever tried to translate a saying or slogan verbatim into a different language? It’s almost always hilariously off-base and barely recognizable. Rather than a whole different kettle of fish, you may be dealing with a separate teapot containing trout.
Translation work goes beyond transposing copy in a different language. Translators walk a tightrope between maintaining a brand’s identity and fitting into a culture’s sensibilities.
Will the jokes land? Will the reader understand how to navigate the website based on the visual cues?
When translating web copy, we consider all these things, something that Google Translate could never offer. If your brand serves non-English-speaking audiences (and if it doesn’t, it should), invest in a translator—they will be your guide in capturing the essence of your brand as a fluidly multicultural experience. Creating thoughtful multilingual content sets your brand apart. If you champion equity and diversity, making sure that you serve the broadest audience possible is how you can demonstrate that.
However, Google Translate isn’t totally useless. In fact, it can serve a vital purpose during your website’s design phase.
Use Google Translate as a design tool
While Google Translate might not be the best way to approach content translation, it can be super handy for visualizing your website in different languages.
For example, Spanish sentences are notoriously longer than they would be in English. Google Translate can help you understand when a module’s container sizes should be adjusted to fit different languages and alphabets. Designing for multilingual use cases can help your site’s user experience stay top-notch across more audiences. Nothing feels more off-putting to non-English-speaking audiences than a website that’s clearly built for a different language, rendering their on-page experience lopsided and askew. This may also contradict your diversity statement and reveal your stated “brand values” as an English-only consideration.
As for alphabets, Google Translate can also help test fonts. If your chosen font doesn’t include special glyphs, your non-English users may see a confusing array of empty boxes, further emphasizing your website’s lack of multilingual support. The same goes for any form of text input. Make sure your forms allow for these special glyphs as well!
You might not have scoped a fully multilingual content strategy, but using Google Translate to probe for flexible design decisions will make such an effort much easier to accomplish in the future—without unnecessary headaches and runaway costs.
Consider localization and transcreation
Localization refers to creating content that speaks to that specific audience, with transcreation taking it a step further by remaking the brand identity entirely to fit that country’s culture. While these strategies are typically used to launch separate websites to be hosted in a new country, they do offer a few best practices that can help when translating content for “universal” language trees.
The disciplines of localization and transcreation start with the same question as almost every other marketing task: Who is your audience?
If, for example, your goal is to target Chinese audiences, you’ll want to consult a translator for insights that go beyond the act of translation. They can also help you understand important local nuances of Chinese culture. Without knowing these, you could be asking for the Mandarin equivalent of saying “howdy pardner” during a business meeting on Wall Street.
Of course, some languages are more “universal” than others. Localization and transcreation can hit a major snag with Latinx populations. More so than with other international linguistic families, Latinxs are often painted with broad strokes due to a shared language that’s really their only point of cultural unity. Caribbean Latinxs, Central American Latinxs, and South American Latinxs are all markedly different regions, with distinct cultures within them that vary by country and locale.
Spanish-language localization and transcreation can have the unintended consequence of alienating large swaths of your intended audience. Imagine, for example, if your English-language website referred to Vegemite as a preferred national breakfast food in the U.S. The odds are fairly low that your intended audience would have even heard of this Australian staple, much less prefer it (it’s basically bread-flavored paste).
Even when your preference is to keep your phrasing as broad as possible, the far-flung nature of the Spanish-speaking diaspora often requires no-win choices. Not only must you navigate a minefield of possibly exclusionary word choices, but the narrative of making them can be especially jarring. Latinxs come from different countries with a shared experience of colonization, often specifically with regard to language. Echoing this history is not a great look for your content.
To serve the goal of neutral language, it may be necessary to alter your brand strategy for the sake of more universal fluency. While no campaign is universal enough to target ALL Latinx communities, brands like Sprite do an excellent job of keeping their campaigns broad enough so as to not alienate any specific audience. If you’re looking for an example of what voice and tone your Spanish-language copy should have, following Telemundo’s style is a great starting point.
Just be ready to re-think your tagline.
Ask for help
Translation requires the same dedication as any other element of your website. It also carries a narrative component that can say a lot about your brand. If you speak about diversity and inclusion as a value, translation is one way to prove or disprove your true level of commitment.
Even a well-done translation can hurt your cause. Without a website that’s optimized for it, even the best words can ring hollow. As Antoine Lefeuvre puts it, Translation is UX.
But you don’t have to be an expert. Knowing enough to know what you don’t know is a great first step. You can ask for help from there.
To start a conversation about improving your website’s UX and how translation fits into your strategy, reach out to idfive.
Mónica Rodríguez-Pérez is a passionate writer, art historian, tech nerd, and book lover. She's worked with a variety of clients within the financial and wellness industries to create and execute successful content marketing strategies. Mónica loves to research, conceptualize, and write anything from blog posts to email campaigns and everything in between. In her free time, she's usually cuddling with her partner and her puppy Lily, roaming the halls of museums, or at her local bookstore surrounded by stacks of books.