A US government agency hired Lebsontech to conduct a focus group to better understand how they should translate and post web content in non-English languages and how they should transition between languages. The focus group participants included people with a specific interest in the agency’s content, were bilingual, and were community leaders for US-based communities that spoke Spanish, Russian, Ukrainian, Chinese, Hindu, French and Tagalog. This post details some of the findings from the focus group.

There is frustration with the existing state of translations.

Translation should not be word-by-word.There was general frustration with the existing state of US-based websites that had translated content to make it available in other languages. Participants complained that translations were often presented on a word-by-word or sentence-by-sentence basis. The meaning, they said, is often lost. Participants unanimously felt that translations did not have to be linear with each word or sentence matched to a word or sentence in the other language. A Spanish-speaking participant gave an example of recently seeing “overnight” in a Spanish translation. While the English content noted that students were having an “overnight” activity, the Spanish translation used the Spanish word for overnight, which does not convey that the students are sleeping away from home.

Translation should be conceptual and holistic.A translator should look at each page holistically and assess the key points that need to be conveyed. It is more important to make sure that the translated page conveys those ideas than for a linear translation to be posted. In order to accomplish this, translators need to have a good understanding of the subject matter.

Translators often do not take cultures into account.

A language most likely will encompass speakers from multiple cultures, including both different countries of origin and different cultures within a country.

Translators need to have a wide and deep cultural understanding. Translators should have a deep understanding of at least one of the primary cultures to which the language relates and at least a basic understanding of all of the other cultures that speak that language. Translators need to understand differences between cultures and need to use terminology and ideas that would be understood by the different cultures.

Translators should consider whether content will be read regionally. Sometimes, content is going to be geared to a specific region, for example, a Spanish-language translation of content related to an event in Miami could be more Cuban-Spanish centric, while a similar translation related to an event in the Southwest could be more Mexican-Spanish centric.

Critical content needs to be particularly culturally sensitive.

Critical content must be stripped of any culturally American baggage. One participant gave the example of 911 as something that we may forget is culturally American. It is so critical that people know when to call 911. Yet if someone sees “Call 911” but is not familiar with what 911 represents, they may not even realize that this is a number that they dial on their phone, should emergency strike.

Measurements should always be converted. Participants related situations where the direct translation included typically used American units of measurement instead of metric. For international understanding, they stressed specifying things with multiple units of measurement.

Language should be formal on government sites. Whenever text is translated on government sites, participants felt that it should always be translated formally. Two Spanish-speaking participants complained about government sites that translated “you” as “tú” instead of the more formal “usted.”

Plain language should always be used; consider multimedia.

Plain language should always be used. The Plain Writing Act of 2010 specified that all government documents should be written using the rules of plain language. Just like the original English text should use plain language, so too should the translated text. Participants suggested that those people who can’t read English have a higher likelihood of being less educated to begin with, thus making the rules of plain language all the more important and critical.

Consider multimedia. Participants suggested that audio, video and pictorial illustrations were especially important when trying to get the word out about critical issues. They said that if someone is low-literacy in any given language, hearing the information may be very valuable. In addition, a video or illustrations might help explain things that may not come across immediately due to cultural differences.

Ikea does things right. Participants commented that Ikea is very good at creating simple illustrations for assembling their products that are understandable without needing to understand any written language.

Contextual help could be valuable. There was discussion about the importance of contextual help information. Participants spoke positively of sites that have little question mark bubbles that, on a mouseover, would display definitions of potentially complex terms or perhaps supplemental images.

Findability is often poor on government sites.

Participants were unanimous in their belief that government sites do a poor job with findability of content. They complained that sites were very large, navigation was often poor, and search engines didn’t necessarily work. They said that people with limited English proficiency often have a particularly difficult time finding information.

Ways to improve findability. There are several ways that sites could improve findability for translated content. First, it should be clear that the organization of information makes sense to those speakers of other languages; just because a particular organization scheme makes sense to native English speakers, this does not mean that it makes sense to others. Also, search engines should be tested with foreign language keyword searches to make sure that they are appropriately displaying results. Finally, even if all parts of a site are not translated, consider having an index available in foreign languages that includes even the non-translated topics. At least this makes it possible for people with limited English proficiency to get to the right information, even if they struggle to understand some of it once there.

Considerations when transitioning from English to another language

Top-right of the page is the primary location for links to other languages. When asked where they would expect to find a link to foreign languages, participants all felt that the top-right portion of a page was the appropriate place to look.

Is “More Languages” okay as a menu header? Some participants questioned whether those who spoke other languages would know enough English to know that a link like “More Languages” was the right place to look. There was a suggestion among some of the participants that sites should use small periodically changing flags to indicate that content is available in other languages, although other participants were not so enthusiastic about this idea since only a few flags could be displayed at once. Participants also suggested, at a minimum, that visual treatment be applied to language transition links to help draw attention to these important area.

Select a language before continuing?While participants praised sites like FedEx and UPS that ask users to select a country before showing content, it is unclear that a similar language selector would be appropriate when the target audience is, for the most part, US-based.

Create a prominent language selector initially? Approximately half of the participants wanted a prominent language selector on the first page of the site that users came to. They wanted to see this in the top third of the page, towards the center. While this may be impractical for all users, perhaps language configuration in users’ browsers could be deciphered and this selector could be shown whenever the settings are not configured to English.

Considerations when transitioning from another language to english

It would be impractical to translate all site content into multiple languages. Participants were therefore asked how speakers of other languages should be notified whenever they come to the end of content available in their language. All of the participants wanted to be clearly informed as to when they were transitioning back to English. Several participants felt that it was very important to be informed of this before a click, for example with “(in English)” added to the end of a hypertext string or immediately following that string. Other participants suggested that they would like to see an explicit warning after a click, letting them know that content in their language is not available at this point and that they are being transitioned back to English. If possible, both of these methods should be employed.

Automated systems are a problem.

Participants were extremely negative about tools like Google Translate and other translation tools that are used to translate content. They said that the only purpose for these tools is to give the translator something to start with, but that this content always needs serious editing by a translator who natively speaks the language and can correct odd errors in the translation.

A crowd-sourced approach is not recommended.

Participants were also asked what they thought of a crowd-sourced approach, meaning that anyone in the general public would be invited to translate text, and this text would be submitted to a designated Federal employee who would be an approver (or editor) of the submitted translation.

The participants were all very negative about this approach, particularly for government agencies. They said that even if it would technically work, it would give speakers of other languages the impression that the government website is no better than Wikipedia.

An “ideal” system

According to participant feedback, an ideal translation system would involve two translators for every language. The two translators would each represent different cultures that speak the language and would each be responsible for a portion of the translated content. After one translator writes the content, the other translator would be responsible for reviewing the content.

Once content was translated, the participants said they would want it to be reviewed by an independent panel of reviewers in the general public. These reviewers should not be too steeped in American culture, and should come from a mix of educational and cultural backgrounds. The reviewers would report on any problems or things that they found confusing.

Whether this system is practical would be an open question, but it seems that this kind of method would be very valuable at vetting content, making sure that it is understood by multiple language cultures, and that critical content is available to everyone that needs it.