We live in an increasingly connected mobile world. While everywhere in the world uses phones to connect people to each other, many countries around the world are now mobile-first for the internet. Phones and apps are the main way they use the internet to access services, pay bills, and send money to each other. Nearly all forms of communication or service are designed to work on phones as apps or mobile web pages.
As apps become more successful, they inevitably need to be translated to get more users and spread to other countries. However, translating an app is difficult, which is why if you have used an app that has been translated into your native language, you will likely notice the same issues: funny or strange translations, UI text that doesn’t make sense, and layout and design issues caused by the different lengths of text. When you are using those apps, it’s easy to blame the translators or the company that makes the app. However, translating apps is not easy and there are many challenges that companies and translators face during the process.
When translating apps, a lot of the context translators have when translating longer documents is missing. Translators are often translating strings that are just one or two words with no other context. When a translator sees a word such as “close”, they have no easy way to tell if it is a button that can be used to close an app or screen, or if it’s an indicator telling the user they are close to something. In those situations, the translators must guess which is correct and will often choose the more common meaning.
Characters vs. letters
In addition, there are often limits to how many characters you can fit on a button or a line. If translators don’t have that information, their translated text will be cut short if it’s used in the app. This is especially true when translating from languages such as Chinese, where a lot can be said with a few characters.
Lack of Linguistic Testing
Companies struggle with these challenges. Many companies never expected to translate their apps, so they often are unprepared to deal with the translation process. For their first attempt, companies can often scrape all the strings from the app or website, stick them in an excel file, and send them off for translation. Then they take the translated text and copy it back into the app before pushing it directly to end users (All the translators out there must have seen this before!). Due to their inexperience, they often do not realize the importance of performing linguistic testing on the app in each of its languages. Cutting corners to save time and money, is clearly not the right choice.
The backlash from the target audience can often be swift and brutal. The translation errors are often picked up and shared on social media, and in some cases become memes that persist long after the error has been fixed. However, many companies have persevered through that first unpleasant experience, learned from those mistakes, improved their process and translation, and succeeded in spreading to other countries and users.
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Written by Nurullah Morshed, Technical Writer, Shanghai