Three fundamental reasons why small businesses should avoid using machine translation for marketing purposes

I’d start with a disclaimer: I’m not a blogging type of person; I prefer working to writing articles, because I enjoy my work a lot. However, I have come across a number of misleading articles that encourage small companies to use machine translation tools in order to expand their businesses. Sadly, their authors had no idea what they were talking about. In this article, I’ll try to explain why it is better for small businesses to refrain from using machine translation for marketing.

Now you may say: hold on, I know what you’re doing here. You’re a professional translator, and you are trying to sell us your services while throwing some dirt at your competitors! Shame on you!

If you bear with me, I’m going to use my competence and expertise to show you this is not the case.

Being able to deliver your products and services to other countries is great – there’s no doubt about that. Managers in every evolving company think about the ways for their businesses to grow – and expanding your clients’ base by reaching foreign markets seems to be the easy way to go. Especially when all you have to do in order to generate more sales (well, at least in some cases) is to localize your website. The cheapest solutions out there are based on machine translation – there are some widely known free solutions, as well as a number of plugins for your CMS that promise to do everything for you.

But there are three fundamental reasons why you should avoid using machine translation for marketing purposes.

1. Low quality.

This guy cannot bear the low quality of the translation he's received.
Photo by karatara,

I once encountered an article that promoted a machine translation solution. One of the examples was the translation of a website copy from English into Russian. The author basically wrote: see, how easy it is to translate your website into another language. However, the author did not know a word of Russian. He did not realize that the Russian translation was awfully bad, to the point that it was impossible for a native reader to understand what it was about.

Last year I took part in the localization of a popular online mobile game. Its creators decided to use the services of professional translators to localize its interface. I wanted my translation to be as accurate as possible, so I played that game (a lot). There was a live chat option in the game which any player could use, so in order for everyone to understand each other, it was powered by machine translation. Although the results weren’t that great, players managed to understand each other most of the time, as the language of the chat wasn’t too complex. It was sometimes hard to make out what Hungarians meant. But nobody ever got what the Japanese guys and gals said. The automated translation returned complete nonsense, so soon everybody stopped trying to understand the Japanese at all.

I’ve mentioned these examples from my personal experience to explain a fact that is well-known among linguists, but is sometimes overlooked by people involved in other areas: since all languages are different, you may get great results for one language combination and absolute gibberish for others. If some machine translation engines boast that their translation nearly equals human translation (albeit not quite), it does not mean it would be perfect for all the target languages concerned.

Either one would use a fancy new neural machine translation tool or an old-fashioned solution based on a statistical model, the translation of a marketing copy would most definitely turn out to be poor. Although algorithms based on neural networks could show pretty impressive results if fed with enough high-quality data for some specific domains, this would hardly be true for marketing texts. The thing is that these kinds of texts need to be translated with multiple cultural nuances in mind, if not adapted. Some highly sensitive copies, including slogans, require transcreation, or reimagination of the original text in order to fulfill its purpose with the new target audience. And machine translation is just not capable of that.

One peculiar (and, sadly, pretty common) mistake is the translation of a popular slogan “Everything in one place” into Russian as «Все в одном месте», referring to a widely-used euphemism for buttocks. You can try to enter this phrase into a machine translation engine and see the results for yourself.

The question of low quality brings us to Point number two, which is

2. Scaring your prospecting customers away.

She would never visit that website with bad translation again!
Photo by Moose Photos,

Yes, that’s exactly what low-quality translation does.

I love reading books on marketing. I translate marketing texts for a reason – the world of marketing fascinates me. One of the courses I’ve completed had a very interesting module on product-oriented vs. customer-oriented marketing. But in the two new books on marketing I’ve read within last month the purpose of marketing is described as serving the customer in the best possible way. To put it very simply, customer-oriented marketing has become the marketing.

I love when marketing works in this way. I love it when companies use various media and tools to impress me and win me as a customer by meeting and exceeding my expectations. I love when it is done in a smart way.

When I encounter a badly translated website, however, this is a clear signal that the company does not want me as a customer. Hey, they did not even bother to make their content understandable for me. And I don’t even want to know what else they have got in store.

A couple of years ago I had to have a water heater installed in my apartment. It works very well, but when I started to read the manual – my, my. The Ukrainian translation was awful. I sent a complaint to the Kyiv office – and no one even bothered to respond. Would I buy anything from this company again? The answer is obvious.

Again, one might speculate that I care too much about translation only because of my profession. The author I’ve mentioned at the very beginning of Point One also promoted some website with poor English copy. The people who commented to that article expressed strong distrust to the website and its services (note that they did not evaluate the product/service themselves, the judgment was based solely on the language quality). The author argued that the product/service was okay, so he did not care about bad English. That is a respectable point of view, but it is not widely shared, as it has turned out.

And so we’ve come to the Point number three:

3. This would eventually cost you more.

Cheap translations actually cost you more.
Photo by Pepi Stojanovski,

Seriously, with plenty of options available on the international market today, why would a prospective customer stick to the brand he/she is dissatisfied with? Moving on has never been easier.

Let’s imagine you’ve used some MT solution for your marketing copy – and you don’t notice any increase in sales. That means that it’s high time to invest into professional translation. It’s as simple as that: you get to pay for the translation twice – the first time for the MT, and the second time for the proper translation. Why not start with the professional translation then? It will save you time and money; moreover, you won’t lose any prospective clients who will be very hard to win back.

I hope that this article has persuaded you that it would probably be a good idea to stay away from using machine translation for marketing purposes. I would always suggest investing into professional translation, because all those affordable solutions are cheap for a reason. And no matter who you choose as a language services provider, you’ll make me truly happy if you decide to use the services of a professional and make your website shine in other languages, because quality content is invaluable.

If there is anything I can help you with, drop me a line.