Mind your language: when auto-translate gets you in trouble

Yes we’re professional translators but we can’t deny that Google Translate has made the summer holidays of millions a much easier proposition. However, as we’ve highlighted before, using Google Translate and other auto translate programmes can cause problems and, for more complex work, a professional translator is worth their weight in gold.

Last week we saw yet another ‘auto translate fail’ highlight an issue of which many people may be completely unaware. 

What not to do

So it’s 2020, and finally something has knocked Covid off the headlines: the US elections. Once the votes were counted and the result (albeit contested!) announced, world leaders hastened to deliver their congratulations.

Spare a thought then, for Pakistan PM Imran Khan whose tweet to Joe Biden delivered rather controversial sentiments. Innocently tweeting in Urdu, he was seemingly unaware that Google would offer a translation of his message to his audience in the US. Unfortunately that translation was a little off as it reported Khan was looking forward to working with “the corrupt leaders who cover up the stolen national wealth”. Oops.

Now whilst matters of state diplomacy are perhaps not part of your day to day business, getting off on the wrong foot with a new client, or mistakenly representing yourself in a bad light to current customers, is not a good thing.

The trouble is, whilst most people appreciate the need for a translator when it comes to official comms, how many of us even consider what that helpful “auto translate” plugin might be doing to our innocent social media messages among overseas audiences?

How did it happen?

We got in touch with one of our Urdu translators to get to the bottom of this. Irshad Muhammad was educated in the UK but is a native Urdu speaker based in Pakistan. He took a good look at our example for us and told us there were two key errors which contributed to the dodgy translation.

Firstly, he noticed that the Urdu version was missing a lot of spaces – probably to save space due to Twitter’s character restriction. The spaces are skipped where it’s assumed the reader will understand the words individually, but with a machine translation, this nuance is missed.

Secondly, Google made a big error by not treating the two parts of the sentence (which were joined by “and”) as part of the same sentiment, and translating them separately.

So a professional translator like Irshad could have pre-empted the issue caused by missing spaces, and helped to compose a message which read more clearly from the start and would have produced much better auto translate results.

How to avoid it

Translation software is now ubiquitous across the internet. Social media platforms embed into their websites technology which offers instant translations of everything to their users. Most web browsers have an auto translate programme built in to interpret online content too.

The trouble is that most of us posting online aren’t considering an overseas audience. If your business doesn’t have a presence elsewhere, there’s not too much to worry about, but if you’re merrily posting content in English, yet half your customers are in Europe, for instance, you might want to consider what they’re unwittingly consuming via auto translate!

There’s often not a hard and fast rule to avoiding a dodgy translation – there are so many different technologies out there that it can be hard to predict how it will turn out. But there’s definitely an argument for crafting your online content very carefully.

Some things you might want to consider

  • Be aware that content read overseas will offer an auto translation into the local language

  • If you have a known audience in a country with a different language, it is particularly important to check the clarity and simplicity of your messaging to ensure there are fewer chances for translation software to slip up

  • Remember that entire web pages can also be automatically translated at the touch of a button in a web browser

  • If you are posting sensitive or important content which may be viewed by nations with a different language, consider running your message past a linguist with auto translation in mind.

  • Remember that entire web pages can also be automatically translated at the touch of a button in a web browser


If you are posting sensitive or important content which may be viewed by nations with a different language, consider running your message past a linguist with auto translation in mind.

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