In Episode 8 of the Content Conversations podcast, Lucy Mowatt speaks to Edidit’s Matt Colley about multilingual content. He explains how to get started with multilingual content, how to find a suitable translator and how to ensure accuracy.
Listen to the podcast here ↓↓↓
Lucy Mowatt: Hi Matt, how you?
Matt Colley: Hi, good. How are you?
LM: Yes, not too bad. Busy old week, but we’re getting there.
For people who don’t know you, could you maybe just give a bit of an introduction about who you are and what you do?
MC: Sure. My name is Matt Colley; I worked for Archant Dialogue, which is a content marketing company, in Norwich for many years. During that time, I picked up a lot of knowledge about managing multilingual content.
I’ve been generally involved in an editorial department and managing a team, and doing all kinds of editing proofreading, content strategy. But one thing I have a particular passion for is multilingual content, and that’s something that I believe we’re going to be talking about today.
LM: We are, indeed. And just to give you a plug, you’ve recently just started your own business as well, called Edidit.
MC: Yes, Edidit. No one’s quite sure how to pronounce it – myself included. And a lot of people have difficulty spelling it. So I’m learning as I go with things like branding and such like, but I’m going to call it Editit and we’re going to stick with it.
I decided to start my own company last summer after being made redundant for my previous role, and yes it’s been a steady start, but I’m getting up to speed now and really enjoying all the challenges that being a business owner is throwing at me.
LM: Cool. And you’re continuing to offer similar services to those you provided at Archant Dialogue? Proofreading and multilingual content and that kind of thing?
MC: Yes, proofreading, editing and content strategy. I’m also working with startups around Norwich. Maybe people who don’t have as clear an idea of how their company is going to be publicised, and how their content strategy might look.
So I’m working firstly with agencies, people who know what they need editing, proofreading and suchlike. And then I’m working with people who maybe aren’t quite so sure exactly what they need. I can go in, get to know their company a little bit and advise them on the best way forward in terms of reaching their target audience and reaching them with the correct messages.
LM: Sounds very exciting. Exciting times.
MC: It is.
LM: Cool. And as you just touched on, we’re going to be discussing multilingual content in this podcast. So can you explain roughly what that is? Give people an idea of what multilingual content encompasses?
MC: Well any company will have its own mother tongue if you like.
So the majority of British and American businesses will have English as their mother tongue. You will find that in business globally, English is used as a lingua franca i.e. people default to it. So it’s a pretty safe assumption that English will be useful to you no matter what your mother tongue is.
But what I can specialise in, what I’ve got a lot of years of experience in, is how you make that message relevant across different countries, different cultures, and different languages.
Translation is only the first part of it. Obviously, if you are creating a product or service that you wish to sell in a number of different countries, you may well want to get content that originates in English, translated into other languages, whether that’s European, Roman languages, Italian, French, Spanish, or Arabic or Chinese or Japanese. It all depends on your target markets.
But the idea of a multilingual content strategy is to realise that it’s not a case of one size fits all. It’s not simply writing your content in English and translating it – or sending it to a translation agency for them to translate directly into French, and sending it back – and then you put it on your French website. That’s just the first aspect of multilingual content.
LM: So what would come after that initial translation? What would be the next steps that you would take if you were looking after that multilingual content?
MC: Well, a lot of it is stuff you would actually do before you go to translation.
So, to begin with, you need to identify your target audience. If your target audience is only in the UK then nothing is going to be lost in translation. But if you are a British business, and you are run and owned by British people and you’ve only got British employees, then there is what people like to call CQ – or cultural intelligence.
Obviously, we have IQ and EQ (emotional intelligence), so CQ is one of the latest buzz words and that’s making allowances for how different countries and different cultures perceive different methods of communication and interaction. And I think when you are at the very outset, you’ve got to work out where you’re trying to sell your product or service, and then identify the differences in the target markets. I have a lot of experience working with Harley-Davidson and done multilingual content for Harley-Davidson for more than ten years, and obviously, they’re an American brand; they’re very proud of their American heritage.
But American iconography isn’t going to sell a bike on its own. Obviously, being an American is an important thing, people in Asia or Europe or Africa who want to buy Harley-Davidson bike know it to be an American brand and sign into that. But also you’ve got to look at how people receive communications, what kind of cultural sensitivities there maybe; little turns of phrase, or tone of voice that is particular to a language or the culture that you’re not going to know about from where you are in the UK.
So before you even go to translation, you’ve got to identify what your brand is, what it stands for, what its tone of voice is and what its audience is in English. How you’re going to write in English? And, once you’ve got your English tone of voice sorted [you need to be] comfortable creating content in your mother tongue.
You’ve then got to find people who are sympathetic enough to be able to not just translate the words, but also translate the cultural sensitivities and make sure that the same message is conveyed without necessarily using the same language.
LM: That’s really fascinating. So do you have any tip? How would you go about looking at those cultural differences? Would it be something that you’d look at initially before the translation? Or would you work with someone in the market, for instance, to find out about how the two cultures differ? Or do you do desk research and research online? Are there any steps you typically take?
MC: You would certainly want to do some research for yourself before you embark upon doing a multilingual content strategy, absolutely.
It cannot do any harm at all to research how people do business in different countries, and also there are two levels of it here.
One is the level of how you will interact with the people who are running your company in those markets, or who are representing you in those markets. And secondly, there’s the language of the consumer, the people who are actually (hopefully) going to be buying your product.
So you need to make sure that you’ve got someone who you trust in every market, who will be able to make you aware of those sensitivities and advise you on the best way to approach translating your entire proposition into that language and that culture.
Now it may be that you’re only a small company. You want to branch out into those cultures and countries, but you don’t yet have the know-how or the footprint or the money to be able to […] just open an office in Berlin or whatever.
So that’s why it’s really important to choose the right translation agency. There are a lot of agencies in my experience that are less than brilliant, let’s say. And I’ve certainly encountered projects where I believe people are doing it on a cost model. Effectively, the company runs on how quickly and cheaply it can turn around these translations to maximise profit.
And it’s a very nuanced thing. I’m not saying that the translations these people do are going to be hopeless, but it’s really important that you feel that the company that you pay money to translate your brand and your passion into other languages understands your message in your mother tongue, and can then effectively pass that message on to the people who are actually going to be doing the translating.
A lot of translation agencies don’t have hundreds of people in-house, in a big office. They manage the systems, they manage the project and then they will outsource the projects to freelance translators, people who represent that agency but are not necessarily employed by them.
LM: Are there any accreditations that maybe people should look for? I know that you can get some ISO accreditations, are there any certification bodies or anything like that that you would look for
MC: I’m going to be honest, and say no.
MC: I’m not sure there are. I would imagine there are and I don’t know. But if there’s anyone listening who would like to let me know, I’d be really interested to know what kind of accreditations there are out there.
But certainly, it’s very easy to be sucked in by an initial proposition; someone saying yes we’ll do this, we’ll do that, we’ll make sure it’s consistent, we’ll build up a glossary of terms that all our translators will be provided to all our translators before they commence work.
But ultimately, there’s every chance that a company can still be just trying to squeeze margins and be sending it to a translator and say we need this with X turn around and we’re going to pay you Y amount, and just trying to maximise their profits by not giving the best conditions to the translator to do the best job.
So I think it’s really important that you try to arm yourself with as much information as possible before you approach a translation agency, so you know exactly what you want and you can question them to make sure that they’re going to deliver on their promises.
How do they make sure it happens? Do they have robust strategies in place? How do they deal with errors? Am I going to get a reduction in the cost […] You know I’m convinced that there are certainly at least one or two translation agencies out there who probably still shudder at the thought getting one of my emails when I found this and this and this and this in these different languages.
LM: It’s quality control.
MC: Yes, absolutely. And I know that there are companies that really do care about that kind of thing, I think, again, a massive global translation supplier is going to operate on a cost model at its core, you know, irrespective of the quality of the final product. They’re looking to scale up, and they’re looking to make it as profitable a business as possible.
But if there are smaller local agencies, obviously they’ll have a smaller pool to work with and perhaps not be quite as quick in turning things around. But you can certainly get a better idea of the provenance of your translations.
There’s one company in Norwich that I’ve recently gone to meet called Integro. I went to meet the founder, Tom Bool, a couple of weeks ago, and we ended up having a really long geeky conversation about the corners that translation agencies tend to cut and how you can identify them.
Tom’s company has it absolutely nailed and wants to understand your tone of voice and your overall branding and ultimately they will only work with clients who they think actually have a profound interest in developing their brand, and adhering to structures. You know that ultimately they will do a lot of the QC for you if you’re not quite sure what you need to do, but you know it’s going to be on point and it will help you to develop.
LM: It’s a great tip.
MC: Yes, I’d certainly recommend them. But again I’m sure if you’re listening elsewhere outside Norwich in Norfolk, there would be a lot of other smaller agencies and, you know, probably big agencies as well that have accreditations I don’t know about. But you’ve got to do your research before you commit to anything. That’s Translation 101, really.
LM: And in terms of industries, are there any where you’re seeing more demand for multilingual content? Or is it across the board? There are no particular specifics?
MC: I think it’s as with business in general. Wherever a business sector is growing there will be a demand for multilingual content. We’re becoming increasingly globalised as a culture, and I don’t see that going into reverse gear anytime soon. We’re opening up and doing business with markets that traditionally maybe we’re a little more closed, particularly in Asia.
The growing economies of Brazil, Russia, India, China [are where people are] looking to develop truly global brands. You know it can happen in any sector where there’s growth, but certainly, I would say healthcare is a huge sector with a lot of global impetus to fight things like diabetes, and mental health issues stuff like that. You know I think the old model of going to one’s GP to get a diagnosis is increasingly being replaced by Dr. Google, and I know that healthcare is something that’s going to completely transform over the next generation.
So again I think you’ll find an increasing amount of need for multilingual content there. The automotive sector is always going to be huge, and I think, as you know, that’s another industry that’s going to go under a colossal change in the next 20 years, bringing more carbon-neutral electric cars, driverless cars. But yes, if I thought long and hard enough I could probably make a case for any industry sector really, other than hyperlocal stuff.
LM: Fair enough.
MC: If it’s global then, it’s going to need multilingual.
LM: Okay, cool. Are there other particular types of content that you’re seeing requested more than others?
MC: Certainly in the lifespan of my work with Harley-Davidson, which was like 12 years up to last year, obviously digital is something that has happened already. But 12 years ago, perhaps, there was a much higher premium on print products, and the digital journey it will always continue to become more complex. But anyone who’s anyone in a global context now will have a website that functions in multiple different languages. So website content, web copy, absolutely.
I think something that’s certainly growing is live translation. I remember speaking to a guy who had a previous role with an agency in Helmand province in Afghanistan, and they were having to find interpreters in Afghanistan who were willing to translate between the local dialect and British English and American English for things like trials for Taliban people. They were having to find people who could interpret and translate live but also remain completely neutral.
And, [then] there are things like events; being able to subtitle videos. Video is obviously hugely more prevalent than it was 10 years ago, due to having bigger bandwidth and being much easier to have video content online. So there’s a whole world of translation beyond the printed page, and that’s only going to keep growing.
LM: Are there any dangers? You were saying about websites and how they’re available in multiple languages, and of using Google Translate to do that for you. Would you recommend having a geographically focused website?
MC: Funnily enough, if you want to fail in multilingual business use Google Translate.
MC: Just go for it. If you’re thinking I haven’t got time for this, but I want to press ahead anyway, just go for it; use Google Translate and see what happens. It’ll be fun.
But, genuinely, it is an increasingly interesting topic because the quality of machine translation and artificial intelligence is getting better all the time.
AI is getting more nuanced, more able to understand the way that humans write, and to replicate it. I know that there is an AI tool that writes business stories for… I can’t remember whether it was New York Times or Huffington Post or something like that… But there is actually you know certain kind of dry, factual, short 200-word online business article that can now be written using a tool that just replicates, learns and replicates like neural network. Neural networks are great by the way.
Computer language is a language as well. And it’s essentially feeding a ton of data into a computer, and in time that will identify patterns. So, for example, there was a woman who fed thousands and thousands and thousands of recipes from recipe books into this neural network – into a computer – and asked it to identify patterns and in time, it would learn to generate its own recipes. However, what the computer can’t do is understand the meaning behind the letters, it will just identify the pattern.
So when I say carrot, you think of a long pointy orange vegetable. The computer just thinks of characters, glyphs in a set of their language set. So it would start off with gobbledygook, and then as she fed it more and more suddenly she would see things that started to resemble words and their measurements, like quarter of a cup. And eventually, it would get to a point where it was creating things that were roughly recognisable as recipes.
But they would have humorous things in like ‘half a cup of no sugar’, and just words that sounded like meat that weren’t quite like ‘peef’. You know it’s really good fun, but it’s just another way of illustrating that you know language is a very nuanced thing.
And even though a computer can do a great job of imitating what humans write, it doesn’t have the nuance to understand the emotion and the reasoning, the logic that we employ behind trying to appeal to people’s emotions when you’re trying to effectively monetise things, sell products and services.
LM: Yes. Things like emotion and how emotionally charged language may be, and things like that, a computer is never going to understand.
MC: No. But as time goes by there are tools that you can use, even down to things which anyone can use like macros on Microsoft Word. You can program macros to go through a document and make changes to it. So you can look for things, and then you can search for them all or you can edit inline as you go. Or you know when you’re really confident, you can do global changes.
So for example, people who used to work in typing pools always put a double spaced at the end of sentences. Nowadays, we tend to use a single space. So if you wanted to go through a 300-page novel that you’re proofreading and get rid of all the double spaces, then you could just write a macro that would go through and do it automatically.
That’s certainly something where computers can help us with translation and editing. You can teach it to identify patterns or words, for example, putting accents on the correct words in Spanish or French.
And so, beyond macros, you’ll then reach a point where a computer will be able to do a first pass for you. It’s like when you ask someone to proofread something for you; the first time you ask, you’ll ask them to track the changes, so you can see what they’ve done. And in time, hopefully, you’ll trust them enough to just send you the file when it’s done.
But you can actually teach a computer to do a translation for you, but ultimately we’re a long way yet from being able to trust that. I personally don’t think we’re at the stage yet where you can get a computer to translate something, and then you can edit what the computer has done. I don’t think we’re quite there yet. I think, at the moment, you’ll need a native speaker of your destination language, your target language to conduct the translation.
But I think, certainly when you’re looking at a larger body of work and continuous work, a computer will be able to go back and identify inconsistencies between documents, and help you to standardise them, make them consistent, and build a glossary of terms which should ideally be shared between the client and the agency. And that kind of thing is really important to ensure not just that it’s free of errors, but also that it syncs as much as it does to your source language.
I’m sure that, if you’re running or have started a company or are working at an executive level, then you will know about how much work has gone into building and branding the company you work for. But it’s equally important that that level of detail goes into every language set that you wish to sell your product or service in.
LM: Yes, that’s a great point. Alongside using Google Translate, are there any other common mistakes that people make?
What about if you’re changing alphabets? If you’re going from a western alphabet to maybe Arabic or something like that? Are there common mistakes that people need to bear in mind when they work with multilingual content?
MC: I know I’ve used the word ‘nuance’ too much in this podcast already, but there are lots and lots of idiosyncrasies of any language that you’re not going to be able to understand without a lot of practice and exposure with the Roman alphabet. Now all the languages that use the Roman alphabet I’m confident when working with them. I don’t speak them, but it’s pattern recognition effectively, like I’m a computer.
You will notice patterns of words and the more you work with a certain language, the more you will notice that this word goes with this kind of copy. Or that must be related to cars because it always comes up when we’re talking about cars, whatever. And it gets to the point after nearly 20 years of working with complex multilingual projects with like 12, 14 different languages on the go, I can go back to my guy in Norway and say ‘hey, isn’t there a spelling mistake here? That word is not right’.
‘How do you do that?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘You don’t speak Norwegian, do you?’
‘No, I don’t. But I recognise patterns and things, and I’ve seen that word so many times. I noticed that those two letters are on the wrong way around.’
When it comes to things that use other alphabets, I would always make sure that you’ve outsourced that to someone who is, if not a native speaker, then at least a competent and fluent person. Yes, it’s got to be a native speaker really.
LM: I’m thinking about the move towards Chinese and Mandarin; obviously the alphabet looks completely different. So if you were working on a layout, it would look completely different. So a lot of Chinese websites look different from western websites, and certainly, if you’re working in a print layout, you’d need to bear that in mind, I guess.
MC: Yes, absolutely. And I think that even applies to stylistic preferences about how websites look and feel and interact; you know it’s not something I have a huge amount of experience in. But again if the language that’s being used, and the terminology that’s being used has to be looked at very carefully to assure it’s appropriate for the audience, then you would also want to consider stylistic preferences and visual preferences.
It may be that perhaps a society that is I don’t know, maybe a third-world country where there isn’t such rampant, prevalent usage of the internet among everybody, it may be that if you were looking to target markets that were emerging and people didn’t have regular use of the internet, then you might want to look at simplifying it to make sure that it’s incredibly user-friendly.
Whereas if you’re selling in the USA or in Britain, then you know it’s perfectly normal to layers of graphics and rollovers that expand and all that kind of stuff. But you know it’s much more than just getting a translator to say ‘hey, can you get this in German for me?’
LM: And I guess that brings us back to why you’d need a specialist who’s used to handling multilingual content to ask those questions and to help you find your way through that process.
MC: Yes, that’s it. I mean this is an ideal scenario that going through all the pitfalls, and, as I said, my hands-on experience has been with big global clients like Harley-Davidson, Saab and Jeep. They have money to throw at this kind of stuff, and if you’re just starting out but you know that there are big markets in Europe or Asia, then it’s more about a consultancy thing. So, my experience would be that I would be able to come in and look at your proposition and say yes, this is viable, this is valid, this is the minimum you need to do to get a viable product to market or service to market in that particular market.
And at a base level, getting the website translated, repopulating it and typesetting it in European languages isn’t a problem. As soon as you know I could populate or repopulate a website, I could recommend a translator; I would get the text translated and make sure that the translators are building a relationship with you, to understand your brand and ensure that the translations you receive are on point and fit for purpose for your audience in each market.
After that, it’s populated in typesetting. There are so many little things that can go wrong when you don’t speak the language or have experience working with it. For example, the way that people display numbers in different countries. So to write one thousand, we would write ‘1,000’, but some markets have a full-stop: 1.000. Some markets just have a space: 1 000. Some people just run the number in full without any spaces or punctuation: 1000.
And then, for example, in French, you tend to have spaces before certain punctuation points like colons, semicolons, exclamation marks, question marks. Certainly, it was the case 15 years ago that they would always have spaces before those. I’ve noticed that some French-speaking markets don’t do that anymore.
But you know they’re all little things that you need to consider, even when you’re laying things out. If you’ve got a quote that’s been blown up, then would you have a full stop at the end of the sentence? Some people don’t. In England or Britain, we usually wouldn’t, but you know there are so many little things and hyphenation is another one. And woe betide you if you get hyphenation wrong in German!
LM: Oh really?
MC: Oh yes, because German obviously has lots of compound, complex words, which shunt together lots of other words. I always remember from my GCSEs the word for speed limits was ‘geschwindigkeitsbegrenzungen’ and it’s about 28 letters long or something. So you’ve got to be able to hyphenate it, otherwise, every line is only going to have two words on it and the text is going to look really gappy.
You have to know where the syllables start, so you know where to hyphenate the word. And if you get it wrong, then to any German person it will look as out of places as if you’d put two qs back-to-back in the middle of a word. It’s just that this is wrong, it’s black and white. And so that kind of experience is something that you’re going to need to have – or to have someone who can do it for you.
LM: And in terms of gaining that accuracy, would you recommend looking for a translation agency that does like double translations? That would proofread their own translations or would you hire two translators? Are there any set rules about how you guarantee that accuracy?
MC: Yes, you should always have a linguist who does the body of the translation. Then have a human proofreader who double-checks it. And then, on top of that, there should also be computerised checks for adherence to glossaries that will go through a document and pull out anything that’s…
So for example, if you’ve got something within your brand that is a proper noun, it’s capitalised. It”s a brand name then it will automatically do a search for that word and flag anywhere where it doesn’t have a capital letter. Or you know it’ll search for a string of that word but with any two-character shifted around for spelling mistakes and stuff like that.
And you know there’s a lot of stuff that computers can and should do to aid high-quality translation. But the moment you start thinking about using Google Translate or what you learn at school or university you’re entering potentially into a world of hurt.
LM: Good warning. Also just remember from when we worked together you know just making sure you want to spell checker over after you’ve done that proofread. Just to make sure that someone in your team has done a language-specific spell checker over the top of it can always help.
MC: Yes, absolutely. The agency should do that for you and you’re paying for a service that means those errors shouldn’t be there. But when you’re dealing with a volume of work, like Harley-Davidson magazine which was in twelve different languages, it’s ultimately down to human error. No matter how strong the processes are, there will still be mistakes.
You know I’ve been a proofreader for nearly 20 years, but I have made mistakes because I’m a human being. It doesn’t matter how good you are, you’re always going to make mistakes because you’re human. And it can almost introduce another layer of potential for mistakes when you’ve got a computer checking a human checking a computer. It’s complex.
There have been instances where the translator got it right the first time and the computer’s queried it, then the second linguist has gone back and changed it and added in something that was actually wrong. But your agency should be really up to speed on this.
If you’re thinking that you want some multilingual content and you want to go and approach an agency, then listening to this podcast will give you a lot of ammunition; a few bullet points to go and twist their arm when you say ‘I’m interested in doing business with you, but what do you do about this?’
Play clueless, to begin with and then let them sell it to you. And then come in with half-a-dozen questions they’ll be like: ‘oh, sh….!’
LM: Well thank you for coming on the podcast, thank you for your time. Just remind us of your website URL again; where people can find out more about you?
MC: My website is Edidit.co.uk and I’m delighted to speak to anyone who’s thinking about branching out into multilingual content. There’s no fee, just bring me in for a chat and a coffee if you want to ask some questions and find out whether it’s viable.
LM: Perfect, thanks for coming on the show.
MC: No problem, thanks for having me.