Social Media: What we’ve got here is ‘failure to translate’

by Translation Guy on November 20, 2009

Social media doesn’t seem to translate… professionally that is.

Facebook was translated by members, with amateurish results, and when LinkedIn announced they were going the same route, we pros were outraged, as reported in the paper of record, aka NYT.

Translate tweets? There are a couple of applications that do a machine-based translation, and one single-pass human translation resource that I know of, but there doesn’t really seem to be much space in that space for the traditional translation agency TEP model (Translate, Edit, Proof for the uninitiated).

And that’s only the beginning ― I’ll spare you the dirty laundry list of ‘failure to translate.’

I was speaking about this with Joseph Kingsbury, social media practice lead for Text 100.  Joe is one of those hot-shot new media guys who are rewriting the rules for the communications industry.  I was asking him about how translation worked (or didn’t) in the new media.

Where translation services once slipped nicely into the old-timey media workflow, the wagging tail just before the press run, social media doesn’t flow just so. In a social world, the best content is as viral as swine flu, self-accreting, self-organizing, and self-timed.  In other words, absolutely out of the control of the traditional way of doing business. Content is written and digested on the fly, highly idiomatic, devoid of context, and localized to the point of being personalization. Deep insider knowledge of subject and local culture in real time are required to translate.

This makes outsourcing a challenge, since that kind of expertise is rare, and short timelines make it even more of a challenge. The extra time and expense involved in creating translation that doesn’t read like translation is outside the usual translation agency workflow.  It is usually left to chance or by the wayside, much to the irritation of agency clients and the contempt of end-users.

We have some clients who have worked it out, and I’ve got a story or two about getting some of our geezer translators to rip it up on skateboards, but maybe I’m just whistling past the graveyard.

Because style errors in translation can always be addressed. But if social media is about social networks, and social networks are about community, social media may just remain monolingual. Even in multi-lingual communities, there is always a strong preference for one language, and the Web 2.0 makes it a snap.  What would Cool Hand Luke say?


  1. Carlton says:

    Has anyone tried the new Facebook option to translate your homepage to ‘pirate’ talk?

  2. Arman says:

    Every Sept 19th is International Talk Like A Pirate Day. You must talk like a pirate at least once on this day but it is preferred that you talk like a pirate all day, depending on your job of course.

  3. Mike Brown says:

    Isn’t Text 100 a PR agency?

  4. Tourino says:

    Yep, they are:

  5. Georgie_boy says:

    Some big-time clients too! IBM, Cisco, Ebay and PayPal to say the least…

  6. Deva says:

    Their programs are “…built around influencing the full array of key constituents through broad communications activities that emphasize a client’s role in the context of greater business, technology and social environments.”

    Sounds like a PR company to me…

    • Ken says:

      PR? PR? We don’t need no stinkin’ PR.

      As the old media edifice collapses brick by brink, PR to information brokers is replaced/augmented by social media, a robot swarm of memes targeted for collateral information impact on the tabla rasa of our consuming minds.

      Do you buy it, Deva?

  7. Chicky says:

    Social media and translation have a long way to go before there is any synergy…some 5 years is my guess before we can start communicating effectively with other language speakers…

  8. I still think that the idea of bringing people together, through translation, to converse and connect within multi-lingual communities is a very cool idea – imagine the exchange in ideas, culture, etc.

    • Ken says:

      George, when you cross the language barrier, that’s breakout. Even toll-free, the road still twists and turns. Came across this translation of Japanese blogger Chikirin. “These days, only important or relevant information gets translated,” he writes. “What I’m looking forward to is a world where even the most trivial and useless information is translated and available to anyone!”

  9. Ken – very interesting post. Translation is certainly a challenge in social media and cultural nuances which are sometimes highly localized can muddle even simple exchanges. Even the most advanced monitoring companies are grappling with non-English languages and that doesn’t begin to address translation with the goal of facilitating communication among people that speak different languages. I think we’re far, far away from that…but you would know better than I do…

    Also, you’re point about the Japanese blogger and seemingly trivial information is a good one…you never know what kinds of details will turn out to be valuable. It’s not always the obvious stuff.

    Thanks for the interesting post…


  10. I must disagree with you on this point Ken. Not only do public relations and social media compliment one another, but I would argue that the whole social media movement has made the PR environment even stronger – we need PR! On the social media side, you can use social media metrics to identify targets, emerging trends and opportunities for connection, and to measure post-launch campaign success. Again, PR is a natural home for the measurement/monitoring tension. Traditional metrics like contributor share and message volume are certainly adapted to social media, so the PR challenge is going to be function of technology and scale.

  11. Magoo says:

    Excellent point Sociallyinfused, PR and social media can definitely work hand-in-hand.

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