I decided to add a widget today to my site to allow people to translate my homepage using Google Translate. It seems slightly insane considering that this business is based on helping universities communicate effectively to international audiences — mostly universities in non-English speaking countries who have to produce a lot of content in English — and much of what we do is some form of editing and/or translation.
So, does it freak me out that Google Translate is getting better by the second? Well, sort of.
The truth is that this is a great, free tool that I use a lot when I surf the web. It can give you the gist of whatever’s being written and, honestly, can provide a whole lotta laughs along the way. My husband and I must’ve spent thirty minutes with tears streaming down our faces as we read a Danish video game website that was translated into English via Google Translate. And those were tears of laughter. And, yes, we don’t have cable tv.
That said, my business is making sure that any communications from universities are really as perfect as can be. That they have exactly the right tone, that they express complicated ideas in a way that’s easy to understand, that they use language that really speaks to the target audience, etc. And Google Translate — or other machine translations — aren’t there yet. I’m not sure they ever will be. But it is sure getting a whole lot closer…and, honestly, not everything has to be perfect.
There may be some instances where it is actually be better to have the option of getting a bad translation than to have no translation — and the beauty of letting site visitors use Google Translate is that their expectations will be fairly low to begin with. They’ll know that they’re only getting the gist. I can imagine a prospective student showing a university website to their parent who doesn’t speak the language. Or the spouse of someone considering taking an academic appointment in a different country. These are all incredibly important target audiences, but not every university can afford to create content in as many languages as might be ideal.
Is machine translation an acceptable alternative or can it actually do more harm than good? My jury is still out, but my gut says that as long as people are “doing” the translation themselves using something like Google Translate, they won’t entirely blame the university if what comes out is nothing but “snikksnakkerri” (translated into English from the Danish website…my favorite new word!)