Leap the uncanny valley of language

Toy robot holding a pencil.
Am I scaring you?

When managing translation for your team’s content, it’s imperative to guard against cultural and dialectal fault lines that compound the difficulty of localisation. Using native speakers and native reviewers will mitigate awkward misses in meaning and shift the focus from translating words to translating meaning.

In computer animation and robotics, there’s an hypothesis called the uncanny valley. The hypothesis asserts that as human characters are made to look and behave more real — but not exactly real — it evokes a sense of unease and discomfort in us. IEEE Spectrum summarises it nicely:

[Masahiro Mori] hypothesized that a person’s response to a humanlike robot would abruptly shift from empathy to revulsion as it approached, but failed to attain, a lifelike appearance.

Chart showing uncanny valley theory.
From the article, "The Uncanny Valley":http://spectrum.ieee.org/automaton/robotics/humanoids/the-uncanny-valley (IEEE Sprectrum, June 2012), by Masahiro Mori.

While technically a person fitting in the framework of two eyes and ten fingers, the life-like-but-lifeless visage falls into an abyssal delta between approachable cartoon and photographic realism.

The uncanny valley of language

Language also has an uncanny valley exposed during translation. Like animation and robotics, there’s a complex spectrum.

The “bad” end of translation is a jumble of incorrect words, exaggerated accents, and cultural faux pas. At best, the translation is unreadable; at worst, it’s culturally offensive. (This is basically translating “Götterdämmerung” to “god damn that ladder rung”.)

By contrast, at the “good” end, you have seamless fluency, where the emphasis shifts from words to meaning. (Think United Nations translators, Longfellow translating Dante, or chefs giving instructions in Spanish to their staff.)

Between these ends, there’s a delta of poor translation dragged down by lack of cultural immersion — subtly off-colour words, inappropriate cliches, unintentional double entendres. It’s the difference between understanding a language and understanding how a language is used to communicate within a cultural demographic.

Invariably, we detect this uncanny language valley with hair trigger sensitivity. In fact, that discomfort makes for comic shtick. Family Guy nails it:

Another example.

It’s funny except when it matters

Language is fragile, fickle, subjective, and shifting. Yes, we have rules that govern our words: nouns and verbs, clauses and punctuation, conjugation and modifiers, declarations and imperatives. But even with a framework this sophisticated, when we speak, it’s 90% art and 10% science. Language, by its very nature, is fluid, expressive, evocative — tailored on the fly to elicit a specific response. Our words are the contour of sentiment, our tone is the colour of its packaging.

We can all wave our hands in greeting and shake our heads in disagreement. But relaying ideas between languages and the people they represent with specificity and precision demands a near-pure signal to noise ratio.

Translation is a fabulous opportunity for all of that to go wrong. If language is a cultural API, translation is the spidery lattice of middleware. Compounding subjectivity in languages, dialect and brand personality present difficult word and phrase choices and stress-test the quality of that middleware in every sentence.

How to be almost perfect

First, accept that — like cookies — there is no perfect: there are only recipes to get started and iterations to get better. Also accept that no matter how good your translations are, someone will suggest an improvement. This is as inevitable as gravity.

Localise before you translate

Write for the new market in English first. Get any big shifts in product description, brand strategy, audience tone, and other vectors on paper in the language you understand. Vet this thoroughly. When it goes to translation, you want to focus on the language, not the technicalities of the business.

Go native

Seek more than language fluency in your translator — look for nativeness. Purity in meaning only happens when filtered through cultural sensitivity. If our goal is to speak to an audience on their terms, we must consider turns of phrase, colloquialisms, sentence structure, and even re-framing ideas. Only native speakers offer that. Do not hire someone from Quebec to translate for France, someone from Spain to translate for Mexico, someone from Germany to translate for Switzerland. If you work with a translation agency, ensure their staff are in-country natives. (Many hire college kids who studied second languages, among other unqualified people.)

Collaborate on meaning

Encourage (demand, even?) collaboration between the writer and the translator. This does not scale for large volumes of content all at once, but it is not unreasonable for clarifying meaning in particular, tricky passages. A translator, whether a large agency or an individual freelancer, should be considered a partner and an extension of your content team. The best ones openly and actively challenge your writers.

Review with equal fervour

Strive to have reviews of translated material conducted by staff who are equally fluent. Many times, businesses hire “boots on the ground” field employees to catalyse the expansion into a new market. These are likely natives of the region. Use them to review translated material. They will invariably provide feedback, but it’s coming from a place of sincerity: their success might hinge on the quality of the communication.

Finally, remember that you will never be able to out-fluency your audience — the best you’ll ever be able to do is meet them on their terms. Embrace nativeness and hurdle the uncanny valley with ease.