Your Non-English Speaking Customers are Reading Between the Lines

Note: This guest blog post was written by Marco Hanson, co-owner of Texan Translation

I’ve been a Spanish translator for a couple decades now, and have a recurring conversation with business owners in the US about their choice of language on websites and other marketing materials. Maybe they stumble across census statistics for their target market, and suddenly realize that Limited English Proficient people are a sizeable portion of the community. So they decide to take the leap of translating their website, brochure, or other forms and sales materials into a second language.

Great! There is no question that speaking to your audience in the language with which they are most comfortable will benefit your business and translate into more sales. (In fact, the Harvard Business Review has been writing about it for years.) But how do you accomplish this in the best way?

In this article, I’m going to discuss a few methods to get your materials translated, and the benefits of each. In brief, there are three basic approaches: machine translation, a bilingual person, or a professional translation service. Each option merits consideration, and the choice will depend on both your budget, and what you hope to achieve with your finished product.

Machine Translation

This method of translation is when you simply copy and paste your text into Google Translate, DeepL, Bing Translate, or some other free service online. Another option is to have your web developer add a plug-in on your website that allows a user to choose their language from a drop-down list, and the same process happens in the background.

The benefit of this approach is that it is fast and usually free – or, depending on the labor cost of your web developer and plug-in, very economical.

Unfortunately, this kind of translation can be clunky, awkward, and difficult to understand. Think of the instructions you might read on a cheap product ordered from abroad:

press the key of PROD into the ADJUST appearance. d) , heading up to turn over the page with the MUTE key or get down to turn over with the ZOOM key the page arrive the page that want the regulatory item place.

Not only will any charm of your English original be lost, along with humor, jargon, slang, idioms, metaphors, allusions, plays on words, etc, but the actual text may make little sense.

When Limited English Proficient people come across text like this on your website, the brand message you are unwittingly communicating to them is: We are aware you exist, but we can’t afford any time or effort on your behalf until you learn English.

Needless to say, despite the low cost of machine translation, it is often not worth it, as you may be losing business unknowingly from an automated, one-size-fits-all solution.

A Bilingual Person

Another way of getting your materials translated is to simply find someone who is bilingual, and ask them to do it. This might often be an employee or friend who learned to speak another language from their grandparents while growing up, or took it in college, or maybe even speaks it as a native language but now lives in the US.

A lot of people think this is the best way to go, since you’re having a human do the translation instead of a computer, and the cost can often still be very low (especially if it’s a “favor”).

But the truth is, when asked to translate complicated marketing materials, or website copy, such a person might feel intimidated by those long-forgotten grammatical rules and will resort to Google Translate anyway, followed by a little polishing so it sounds more natural. Furthermore, keep in mind that speaking and writing and distinct skills, and we’re all better at one than the other.

The bilingual person is usually an improvement over pure machine translation, but one main drawback is that such renderings usually cling too close to the English original, in a misplaced effort to remain accurate. This can yield an awkward style. On the other hand, the translation may use overly casual, conversational forms (think “Spanglish”) that reflect the social environment in which the translator grew up, instead of more sophisticated and eloquent business language.

Finally, if the person working for you is translating from his or her first language into a second language, the resulting style might strike the native speaker’s ear as foreign and untrustworthy. Think about how, when you read English with just a couple of words or grammar out of place, you notice it immediately—even though the differences happen to be rather slight. Furthermore, if such language is in an email from a stranger, or a company with whom you’re not familiar, you may almost immediately suspect a scam.

Unfortunately, while this method is better than simply machine translation, it’s still lacking. Your brand message will still come across saying something like, We are aware you exist, and we have people who speak your language, but we don’t take it seriously enough to get it right.

Professional Translation

The third—and we think best—way of translating your materials is to use a professional translation service.

In this case, a project manager will ask detailed questions about the translation’s intended use, then choose a translator with the appropriate experience and credentials, who is translating into her native language, followed by an independent proofreader and a final quality control review.

Each of these steps is important in giving you the confidence that your message will get through just as well in the target language as it does in English. This is because context – and not just vocabulary – is vital to writing a high-quality translation. For example, if your clients are in Spain, the ad will read differently than if they’re in Mexico or Miami. If it’s a legal contract, your Arabic will be in a different dialect than if it’s an Instagram caption. If you’re working with Chinese, you need to know whether the population uses traditional or simplified characters; they’re not interchangeable.

A professional translator will advertise his language pair(s) and direction(s), such as European French/Canadian French>American English. In this case, the translator is a native speaker of US English, and is fluent in two varieties of French, but only competent to translate in the direction indicated by the arrow.

I personally have a master’s degree in Spanish, and have been interpreting (spoken language) between Spanish and English for 22 years, but I only translate (written language) from my second language of Spanish into my first language of English. Why? My written Spanish still has a foreign flavor, with the occasional odd choice of preposition or verb conjugation that a native speaker picks up on.

Translators Are Writers

A high-quality translation takes hard work, creativity, problem-solving, and critical thinking – just like writing an original document. We think of translators as writers, and if you want your marketing materials to work with an audience that doesn’t speak English as their native language, you should too.

Thus, you should choose your writers in foreign languages with at least as much care as you choose them in English, especially because you probably won’t be able to judge their output yourself.

An Example of a Translation In the Real World

So how important is it that a qualified, skilled, and trained translator (and a proofreader) work on your copy? Let’s look at an example and see what can go wrong.

I pulled a Spanish sentence at random from the Internet — a hospital mission statement — and translated it into English several ways: a couple of machine translation programs and a few colleagues, some translating into their native language and others into their second language.

Original: El Hospital Real es una organización prestadora de servicios de salud, interesada en el desarrollo, motivación y compromiso de su recurso humano, que ofrece a sus pacientes un servicio de calidad y seguridad a través de equipo médico de alta tecnología y sobre todo calidez humana.
Hospital Real is an organization that provides health services, interested in the development, motivation and commitment of its human resources, offering its patients a quality service and security through high-tech medical equipment and, above all, human warmth.
Hospital Real is an organization that provides health services, interested in the development, motivation and commitment of its human resources, which offers its patients a quality and safe service through high technology medical equipment and above all, human warmth.
The Royal Hospital is a health services provider, interested in the development, motivation and engagement of its human resources, which offers its patients safe, quality service through high-tech medical equipment and, above all, human warmth.
Hospital Real is an organization that provides health services, which is interested in the development, motivation and commitment of its human resources, that offers its patients quality service and safety through a high-tech medical team and most importantly, human warmth.
The Hospital Real [Royal Hospital] is a health services provider concerned with human resource development, motivation, and engagement, which offers patients safe, high-quality service through technically advanced medical equipment and above all human connection.
The Hospital Real is a health services organization that is committed to continually training and motivating our staff in order to provide high quality and safe services to our patients with avant guard medical equipment and above all, with kindness.
The Hospital Real (Real Hospital) is an organization that provides health services, dedicated to the development, motivation and commitment of its human resources. Through its cutting-edge technology and human kindness above all, it offers its patients safe and quality services.

You’ll see that the main ideas recur in each version, but with significant variation. Is it the team or the equipment that’s high-tech? Should the name of the hospital be left in Spanish? If the hospital name is translated, do they want to be known as the Real Hospital or Royal Hospital, both of which are accurate translations of Real?

Is “human warmth” synonymous with “human kindness,” or would their brand prefer the feel of one of those terms? No doubt this hospital’s board of directors spent hours crafting a mission statement in Spanish to convey the right message, but that work could be undone by a quick machine translation, or even in the hands of a careless translator or one who’s unaware of previous English-language content produced for the same hospital.

The Cost, and Benefit, of Professional Translation

Now that we’ve seen why a professional translation can be so beneficial to your business, let’s talk turkey. (Which I plugged into my nearest machine translation app out of curiosity, and got “hablar de pavo,” which literally means to talk about turkey but is not a Spanish idiom any more than “speak about pheasants” means anything figurative in English.) Professional translation will usually cost between 15 and 25 cents a word, which can be about $50 per page of standard-sized text.

Depending on your resources, and how important your target market is, you’ll need to be strategic about choosing the languages and content most worth investing in for translation, and you’ll need a robust plan for serving the Limited English Proficient clients brought in by this content.

But when you do it right, your brand message becomes: We are aware you exist, we have people who speak your language, and we respect you enough to get it right. You are just as welcome in our business as a fluent English speaker.

The company that positions itself this way will become the chosen provider for each language community it embraces.

About The Author

Marco Hanson grew up on the Mexican border in Brownsville, Texas, and taught bilingual elementary school while earning his MA in Spanish. He and his wife Margaret started Texan Translation in 2008, a company that has since produced thousands of translations in 50 languages for state court systems, government agencies, universities, hospitals, companies and individuals, from its offices in Austin and Houston. Marco is a Master Licensed Court Interpreter, an American Translators Association Certified Translator, and a part-time instructor for legal translation and court interpretation at Austin Community College and the University of Texas. He is also a past president of the Austin Area Translators and Interpreters Association and of the Texas Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators. The Hansons have four multilingual children with whom they have collectively studied nine languages.