Is Language Quality Just About Translation?

By Cesar Matas Alsina

Language quality is key to successful localization. That’s an uncontroversial statement, right? But if we ask what language quality means in practice, the answer may turn out to be more complicated than we expected.

It’s easy to reduce language quality to successful “translation” in a narrow sense of the word—that is, simply converting ideas from one language into another, with as few glaring technical errors as possible. This minimalist definition may tempt companies that want localization at high speed and low cost, which often means heavy reliance on machine translation.   

Such an approach comes with significant risks, however, and it may not deliver the benefits that businesses want. Today’s leading brands, meanwhile, are discovering the vital importance of personal, authentic engagement with their customers, end users, and fans. This trend calls for a multidimensional conception of linguistic quality, touching on all the aspects of language that affect communication across cultures.

The Way Brands Communicate Is Evolving

Branding and the customer experience have become ever more sophisticated, complex, and personalized in the era of digital media. Instead of relying on one-size-fits-all mass media campaigns, brands interact with consumers directly on social platforms and strive to build relationships with hyper-segmented audiences. 

To build a direct connection with consumers, today’s top brands use informal language that encourages them to engage and identify with brands on a personal level. The rise of the digital economy, with its focus on providing user experiences rather than just selling physical products, makes this imperative all the more urgent. 

Today’s gaming industry, for example, strives to tell immersive stories that draw players into an experience unlike everyday reality. To succeed in this goal, the content of games needs to reflect not just the language of their fictional worlds, but also the words players use in their everyday lives. If the language feels off or strikes the wrong notes, the spell is broken, and the user experience suffers.

Similarly, contemporary digital marketing focuses less and less on bombarding consumers with disruptive advertising. Instead, marketers are looking to engage consumers on their own terms with content that provides value and enhances their experiences. Brands need to use language that aligns with this goal, whether they are communicating in their home language or localizing content for other markets. 

With the shift toward a digital, experience-based economy, brands thus need localized content that feels custom-made and personal to users. This means an approach to linguistic quality that pays close attention to voice and tone, and to the localisms and in-context cultural cues that make consumers feel a brand is speaking directly to them in their own language. 

Mind over Machine

The benefits of a multidimensional approach to language quality are growing—yet the rise of machine translation can increase the temptation to go in the other direction. For some companies, AI offers the opportunity to convert masses of text from one language to another at high speed and low upfront cost. At most, they may add a thin layer of quality control, employing humans to detect and fix obvious errors in the machine-translated content. 

This machine-driven paradigm promises to make localization easy. Unfortunately, it also leaves out some essential linguistic elements that make localization succeed or fail. 

As sophisticated as translation algorithms have become, they still fall short of capturing many crucial aspects of language, such as the expressions and figures of speech that come out of a specific local culture. Such failures can lead to confusion, miscommunication, and even offense, with serious consequences for a brand’s reputation. What’s more, gradations of voice and tone tend to vanish in computer-driven translation—even though these are vital for creating a personal, authentic connection with consumers and audiences. 

In other words, a mechanistic approach to “translation” will rarely produce the results that brands want from localization, and may even undermine their goals. Only human minds can supply the necessary level of nuance, by looking at a wider range of criteria than computers can provide.  

Defining Language Quality Up

In sum, language quality certainly depends on successful translation—but to reach international markets, your brand needs to aim for more than technically adequate translations alone. Instead, your localization program should strive for a holistic standard of quality that accounts for voice, tone, local linguistic variations, and local cultural context.

On a practical level, that means avoiding the trap of relying too heavily on machine translation, or downplaying the importance of human quality control. Rather, your localization process needs to involve human experts with relevant cultural and linguistic knowledge at every stage, from initial translation to final review and QA. That’s the key to achieving clear communication across linguistic boundaries, while building a deep connection with your customers and audiences in every locale.

Cesar Matas Alsina is Beyont’s Language Program Manager and is our resident expert on Language Quality.

Can your next software localization project benefit from unbiased language quality management services? Contact Beyont to arrange a conversation about your needs.

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