Automatic Translation

Why you should never use automatic translation for your digital marketing

The ability to instantaneously translate dozens of languages into your mother tongue is incredibly useful. Hence, over 226 million searches for “google translate” occur on Google every month. However, these apps are nowhere near faultless, and while machine learning has enabled translation tools to progress dramatically in recent years, the numerous articles showcasing their hilarious fails reveal just how far they are from perfection.

As a result, they should only be used in certain circumstances. If you’re in a foreign country and want to know what’s on the menu, a rapid way of translating it could save you from an unpleasant surprise. Being able to translate a website or social media post in real-time to get a sense of what it’s about could save a lot of time.

However, beyond these simple day-to-day scenarios, the limitations of autotranslators are easily exposed. Businesses seeking to persuade their audience to purchase a product or service need to build trust and familiarity with their brand. This requires the company to provide information in a way that “feels right” to the potential customer. Any awkward mistranslations or inappropriate cultural references could disrupt this process irrevocably.

Why do translation tools make so many mistakes?

Autotranslation tools cannot currently overcome the fact that languages change based on social, historical and cultural memes, specific to certain locations and time periods. This leads to the evolution of different dialects in adjoining regions and the proliferation of intergenerational misunderstanding (especially when the ways we communicate develop rapidly).

The effect for copywriters working across multiple regions (even in the same language), is that their brilliantly perceived marketing campaign devised in London, may not be as effective, impactful or even meaningful in Newcastle, let alone when translated for China’s latest megacity.

At Oban International, we always advise our clients to translate all their digital marketing, including their websites, into the native tongue of their target audience. However, we also encourage them to go further than a simple translation, even when a human translator is employed. By localising their messaging to consider not just the language, but different social norms, historical contexts and cultural references, companies can have a significant impact on the performance of their international digital marketing efforts.

Research in linguistics, psychology, cognitive neuroscience and sociology are beginning to show that our language and culture actually affect the way we interpret the world around us, think and therefore behave. This begins to explain why merely translating a marketing message from one language to another doesn’t have the same impact, and therefore, localisation is vital to international success.

What are the practical implications for my digital marketing?

For SEO, PPC and content it’s not enough to formulate a single language keyword list to be translated across multiple territories. Instead, it’s necessary to create keyword lists from scratch in each of the markets using local knowledge of how people search for the product or service in that region. Some products may not yet be ubiquitous within an area, and therefore no language exists to describe them, particularly in technical sectors such as SaaS or Pharmaceuticals. In such circumstances, it will be necessary to develop the language that feels correct to describe the product or service in that market.

One of the significant issues with translation tools is that they don’t provide you with alternatives to the word or phrase that may be better suited in context. They also struggle to understand phrases whose meaning is not deducible from the individual words (i.e. idioms). By employing an individual who lives and works within the region that you wish to target, you can ensure the correct words and phrases are used, including the most current terminology. Using this technique, Oban has created keyword lists for clients which are far more comprehensive and encompassing than translated lists, capturing far more germane traffic.

Despite everything written above, the internet is heavily weighted in favour of English. A W3Techs survey in 2015 found that 54% of the world’s most visited websites are in English. As a result, English has permeated search terms across the globe leading to the use of “hybrid language” that mixes English with a mother tongue. In some markets, this produces search terms more popular than those in the native language or English alone. These composite languages are especially hard to unearth and even more so to optimise for, particularly if automated translation tools are used on those pages. As such, those who opt to automate translation run the risk of losing out on large swathes of potential traffic.


At its worst, the reliance on autotranslation can lead to geopolitical tensions, such as at a Beijing event of Chinese and African dignitaries, where an errant translation defined China’s relationship with the continent as “exploitation”. The lesson for brands looking to break into new markets is that translation tools are not a shortcut to success and can jeopardise your international potential.

No doubt, machine learning and AI are improving the best of the currently available translation tools, but until they perfect the nuances of context and culture, a human translator is always a better idea.

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