Podcast 181 — Lost in translation

For many organisations, the workplace is no longer local. Technology has helped create a global talent market, where the primary job requirements are a computer and a stable internet connection.

Written by Ross Dickie
Published 11 February 2020
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Podcast 181 — Lost in translation

There are obvious benefits to this, but what does it mean for L&D? How do you deliver a consistent experience to a multilingual, multicultural workforce, spread across different regions?

This week on the Good Practice Podcast, Ross Dickie and Gemma Towersey are joined by Emily Decker from Comtec Translations to discuss: 

In this episode we discuss: 

  • The specific challenges of translating e-learning content
  • The benefits of working with a translation agency
  • When and when not to use machine translation
Ross Dickie

Hello, and welcome to the Good Practice Podcast from Emerald Works, a weekly show about work performance and learning

I'm Ross Dickie and this week we're talking all things translation. I'm joined by my Emerald Works colleague Gemma Towersey. Wie geht es dir?

Gemma

Good, danke

Ross Dickie

Along with guest Emily Decker from Comtec Translations. Bonjour Emily, tu vas bien

Emily

Bonjour Ross, ca va

Ross Dickie

So Emily, do you want to get us started by just giving us a brief overview of who you are and what you do at Comtec

Emily

Yeah, of course. I'm an account manager at Comtec, so I support a number of clients specifically in the early learning industry with their localization requirements. So if you've got an e-learning course built in Storyline or Evolve, and there's any kind of parts of that, apart from the texts that like the images, the videos, that kind of thing, that need to be translated, then we support clients with the whole process from start to finish really

Outside of that, we work in another number of sectors, like marketing, manufacturing and that kind of thing. And we kind of do a little bit of everything really. We've got a global database of freelance linguists, which means that we can work in all time zones, in all language combinations. Probably around over 200 that we work in, 50 of those probably regularly. But every now and again, we get a language that comes up that we haven't done before, which is a new challenge for us

Yeah, we're always learning and we're always doing new things. We like to keep finding a new challenge for ourselves. But yeah, that's a little bit about us really

Ross Dickie

Yeah. I mean, how did you get into translation? Because we were talking over email this week and you told me that you studied languages at university. I also studied languages at university and I don't think anybody from my course actually ended up going into anything to do with languages, kind of like the reverse of learning and development. People come into it from multiple fields, but people from languages go into multiple fields. I'm just intrigued how you ended up in translation

Emily

Yeah. It's one of those things where I think if you are a languages graduate and you end up in a job where you are using your languages, then you've kind of hit the jackpot, really. I always had an interest in translation. So I finished my undergraduate, which I did in French, Spanish and Portuguese in Exeter

And I already knew that I wanted to do a master's in translation. I did that in Cardiff back home. And then it was towards the end of that course that I started thinking, do I want to be a freelance translator? Is that something that I'm going to enjoy doing? And I found out a little bit about project management and working sort of behind the scenes in a translation company. And it became more and more interesting to me really, and sort of got my first job from there

And it just suited me down to the ground and seeing all parts of the process, not just the text translation side of things, just sort of sparked an interest in me. And especially e-learning when there's just so many things to bear in mind is. Yeah, I've never really looked back from there really. But I think it's a good fit and it's something I'd always recommend to language graduates to look into

But yeah, like you said, there's so many other things that language graduates go on to do, but I'm very lucky that I'm one of those few that can keep using the skills that I spent so long developing, really

Ross Dickie

Yeah. You said that there are a lot of things to bear in mind in regards to e-learning specifically. What are some of those things?

What are the challenges of translating e-learning, working with learning content, and how does that compare to translating source material in different context

Emily

Yeah, well, I'm sure Gemma's got her own ideas about what the challenges are for a translation project. But I think to me, one of the main challenges is just making sure that the translated versions have got that same impact as the English, because I know so much effort and time goes into creating those English courses and English modules. And you want to make sure that that is maintained in the translated versions, and that all that time spent doesn't get lost no matter who's doing the course or engaging in the learning, that the impact is the same. And they're able to get the same outcome at the end of it

That spans quite a few different things. You have to bear in mind the fact that the whole thing needs to be localized. It's not just the text, but also any images, any video content, anything that sits outside that module needs to be in the target language as well. And it's just making sure that the desired outcome of the English is going to land exactly the same way in other cultures

Things like humor, puns, poems, that kinds of things, you want to make sure that they're not just translated word for word, but that they're going to have the same punch, no matter who's listening and who's engaging in it really. I think that's one of the challenges of, as a language service provider, that we kind of always bear in mind and want to make sure that we're delivering on

I think other things like cultural issues, any references to location or celebrities or sports or activities that are potentially particular to one culture, making sure that that's going to translate into other regions and other lifestyles and that kind of thing. Just making sure that there's the scope to kind of adapt that where necessary and making sure that it is going to register in other cultures as well

Gemma

Or plan for it in advance. I think that's the other thing is that you're thinking with that translation in mind before you even start the English for that reason. You might have the budget to make the translations more bespoke, by changing images. But if you don't, then it's planning. It's doing that thinking beforehand, isn't it? And making sure that it's not going to offend

Emily

Exactly.

Gemma

By using certain characters or, yeah. Making it more inclusive rather. I think that with that in mind

Emily

Yeah, definitely

I think, yeah, if you've got the luxury of knowing that it's going to be translated before you even start, then that's just the ideal position to be in. Even things like when you're thinking about scenarios that need to be voiceovered and you've got multiple characters popping up. The idea that you're then going to have to think about, well, that's three separate voiceover artists right there, which, you're kind of not, it's not always an immediate consideration

So I think, yeah, you're exactly right. If we know before we even get started, that it's going to be translated, then there's certainly things that can be done to make life a little bit easier. Definitely

Gemma

I think other things about e-learning, and I guess it depends what kind of tool you're using to build your e-learning, but I know challenges, things like having accessibility text that's behind, it's the kind of, in the background and in the backend that the person that's looking at an e-learning module doesn't necessarily see, but someone that's using a screen reader, will hear, and all of that text needs to be translated as well

And that's actually quite a challenge when you hand it over to a translator, anyone, because they can't see it. It's making sure that works and fits with what's on screen as well. That's definitely peculiar to e-learning, I guess

Ross Dickie

Yeah. I haven't really worked tonight in a translation, in any of e-learning modules I've worked on so far. I'm intrigued just as to how it works exactly. Does the translator need to have a firm grasp of the materials? Will there be some sort of briefing process to try to find somebody who already has knowledge of the subject at hand, or do they not really need that? Is that something that can be sort of briefed into them

Emily

Yeah, I think every translation partner works differently, but what kind of makes us unique I suppose, is that we hand pick our linguists for every project. We like to make sure that the linguist that's involved in a project has got the relevant subject area experience. If it's a course on compliance or health and safety, that they have tackled that before, they've got the relevant subject area knowledge and expertise, they know the terminology

If they happen to have worked on, for that end client or company before, then that's an added bonus because they know in terms of what the required style is or level of formality, and that kind of thing. There's certainly an element of that to consider

In terms of linguist briefing, it's important that they know that it is an e-learning project and there might be things for them to bear in mind, like succinctness of the translations, especially if there's character restrictions or space limitations on a screen that they need to bear in mind

And also just the fact that somebody is going to be navigating it as an end user and the style of it needs to kind of register with people and engage people and not just kind of be word for word without any kind of personality behind it either. Yeah, it's definitely a specific kind of translation that's very different to something like a technical manual translation, for example, which is a whole other different set of skills. I think somebody that's got really good style and knows how to write for people, is definitely what we look for in a translation team for any learning project

Gemma

That is getting that conversational tone of voice, isn't it? And like you say, matching it to the English and often if you get style guides from the organization, they're often, they don't tend to cover things like how e-learning is written. And so that, they can be helpful. And I know you use samples, don't you

Emily

Yes.

Gemma

You ask for samples of coms that they've maybe sent out in different languages, to help you guide these translators. But I think e-learning has definitely got a way of speaking to people that does need to be definitely thought through

Ross Dickie

Yeah. And I think it's, I mean, there's Google Translate and things like that have come a long way since I was a language student. I don't think that anybody in my course would have even considered using Google Translate at the time, because it was just giving you a word for word, very literal sort of almost like binary translation, and so you think, ""This is great. I've just plugged in my essay in English and then it's turned to it in French."

But, yeah, it's about trying to replicate the experience that an English teacher is having, or whatever language the source material is written in for the first time, for users of different languages as well. And I think that's still maybe where machine translation falls down, to a certain extent. I think a lot of the time you can tell that it's been done by a machine. Although you do use machine translation software, don't you, Emily as part of your process at Comte

Emily

Machine translation has definitely got its place. I think it's not something that at this stage we would recommend, for learning content. It's kind of, you're right. It's definitely becoming more sophisticated and more clever. But I think at this stage, it can't replace that human translation element. And it's the reason why we still use human translators

Because all those nuances that can't be replicated by a machine, the cultural awareness, the sort of sensitivity to the subject matter, that at this point in time, anyway, you never know where technology is going to take us, but at this point in time, that's not something that a machine can deliver on. And I think a huge part of being a translation partner is taking the trust that our clients give us and know that the quality that they're going to get at the end of it is of the anticipated level

I think things like Google Translate and other machine translation tools, they don't have that confidence behind them. Like you said, you never really know what you're going to get out of it at the end. My favorite example is, I think it was [BRAND NAME], or another well known supermarket, and they had Google Translated the alcohol free signs for their wine aisles into Welsh. And it had come out as ""free alcohol"", which is not quite, I think, what they were going for

I mean, that's two words, just think the damage that you could potentially do with a thousand, 10,000 words. So I think, yeah, the, it might be that machine translation is instant and it's free or it's cheap, but the time and the cost potentially spent fixing Google Translate, could potentially offset that by a long shot

Yeah, it's definitely an interesting one. And I think that it's something that will continue to kind of develop, but at this stage in time that human translation is definitely the way forward. And it's the only way I think, to guarantee that level of quality that is so important, especially when it comes to e-learning translation

Ross Dickie

Yeah. I mean, my impression is that it sort of still struggles with the cultural nuances of language, like you were saying. So although you can get language back from it that is much more idiomatic than it was say five or 10 years ago, it still struggles with that creative decision making that translators do

To give an example from my translation course, we once had to translate, it was that it was an article. It was a newspaper from an article from Le Monde and it was about how Nicolas Sarkozy had unfairly favored his son and given him the top job at La Defense. And the newspaper title also sounded like ""in his father's footsteps""

So you get that double meaning in French. But if you're translating that into English, you have to either lose the reference to La Defense, or you have to lose the reference to his father's footsteps, or you have to find a completely new way of saying that, but that still captures the dual meaning. And I think that is, those kinds of cases are where it falls down still, and you need like a, yeah, that creative decision-making that translators are doing, day-to-day

Emily

Yeah. Definitely. I think in terms of things like, I know sometimes there might be poems or things that are built into learning content that, they obviously have to rhyme. And that's not something that's easily replicated by a machine translation tool. There's time and effort that's going to need to be spent by a creative translator to make the French or the German or whatever, rhyme as well

So yeah, there's still lots of room, I think for, yeah, definitely. There's definitely a place still a place for human translation

Ross Dickie

Yeah. I mean, to play devil's advocate a little bit, I have a bias, because I was a language student I have a bias towards human translation. But if I was to play devil's advocate, but it does, it is a lot cheaper to use machine translation. And then for a lot of people, I think who maybe users French or German or Arabic or Chinese users, who are used to experiencing the web almost exclusively in English and just having to kind of make do in many circumstances, a machine translation, while it won't be perfect, might still represent a big step up compared to what they're used to

And if you're an organization that's trying to translate a course into 20 plus different languages, you can see the financial incentive certainly, of going with the machine translation solution

Emily

Yeah, that's an interesting point. I think obviously a machine translation, like you said, it can be the cheaper, or the free option when you're looking at things black and white. But I think the difficulty is if you're delivering what you would call [inaudible 00:17:05] translation for countries like France or Spain, where they've kind of got the general idea of the English content, but it doesn't really sound that natural. It doesn't really sound that fluent, the level of engagement is going to be so much lower

And it kind of creates a barrier or a friction, really, that stops people learning the same way as if it was written for them, intended to be written for them. And I know that there are so many issues in L and D regarding friction when it comes to learning, engagement is really hard, especially when it's abroad or in other regions. And anything that can be done by the L and D industry to reduce that friction and really make sure that that content is accessible as possible, I think is the best way to ensure a return on investment

It might be that they are having to invest in professional translation, but the advantages and the gains from that I think are going to be tenfold on just plugging it through a machine translation plugin and seeing what happens, if you like

Ross Dickie

Yeah.

Gemma

The risk is pretty high, particularly if it was a compliance course. I mean

Emily

Well, yeah, exactly. There's so much that could go wrong there really, isn't it? If there's an error in the translation, then you could potentially be teaching somebody the wrong thing and that could have massive implications in terms of fines or health and safety and that kind of thing. So, yeah, it is an interesting one

Gemma

You're totally right there about the barriers. I mean, even when we're reading something in English, and if it's got a typo that really sends you off in a, it kind of distracts you and it puts you out of the flow. So I'd imagine if you're reading something that doesn't really feel like it's written, in like, your language, then it's going to be even worse

And yeah, it's going to really hamper learning

Ross Dickie

In a sense, the message that the, whoever's written it, doesn't care about it either. Or the organization that's produced it doesn't care about enough to have, either paid a native speaker to write it or to have proofed it, even. The example you gave of the sign that it's translated into Welsh simply by running that by a native speaker, even if they didn't want to invest in a professional translation, there's a fairly simple way to avoid that, you would think

Emily

Yeah, exactly. I think that's one of the reasons that I love translation, as well. It's such an important tool in uniting people and communicating with people. And it allows people from different departments, different countries, to all be speaking the same language, at the end of the day

And you're absolutely right. It is a way of uniting people on fostering that term of, that sort of sense of belonging within a company or within a department. They might all be coming from different places and they might be speaking different languages, but they're all still involved and they're all still important. And I think that's where you can't really put a price on that feeling, really

Ross Dickie

Gemma, I'm interested in your perspective as an instructional designer, who's now worked with translation quite extensively. What advice would you give to somebody who is working on their first translation project or their first project involving translation? What do you wish you'd known at the start that you know now

Gemma

I think the thing I, as we mentioned before, if you know you're going to be translating then thinking about that and including that as you scope, because you've got a lot of cost implications with translations. Like Emily mentioned, one voice over might become four or five or 10, depending on how many languages you're translating into

That all has to be factored in at the beginning. And that might mean your English version takes on a different format or includes different types of media. The structure might be completely different, thinking about the types of images you can't, when you translate images that adds a whole another complexity to things

It's starting and planning for it at the beginning. And then as you go through your, say, I mean, let's take English as your original, for an example. As you're going through your English production, it's about keeping all your files extremely organized and tidy. All your Photoshop files, all your Illustrator files, anything where you're creating something that then might need to be used again, when the translation is done

If you've got a graphic that needs translating, always have that file ready to be translated. And it's knowing that you're going to have to extract all that text, or at least word count it. If it's going to an external translator, then that all needs to be factored into the word count. And then somehow that text has to come out and then be put into a table or some easy format for your translators to work with and then be put back into your files

Yeah, so the first one is planning design, then it's be organized with your files, and then as well, consider the authoring tool. If you're using an authoring tool. Is there any functionality that is difficult to use or isn't usable in a translation? In a translated version, there's a few things that we can't do, and we've had to adapt around that. Knowing about that before you even start your English version again, is really key

And then I think the last one is, make sure that you've got, with what Emily was saying at the very beginning about that tone and getting the style right. I guess as we read in English, and one person's opinion on style and tone and the way it's been translated is different to the next persons. So it's about having people who can read it and can give you a kind of, I guess, a critique, as well

We always have people in house or that know that companies, know our client's tone of voice, and they definitely check to make sure that we've nailed it in terms of style and tone and that impact that Emily was talking about

Yeah, they're the few pieces of advice I'd give

Emily

I think for me, it's just to not be afraid of translation. It can sometimes become quite, it can feel kind of overwhelming, I think, to somebody who hasn't tackled it before. But there's no reason that it has to be a burden. And there's no reason that it has to be complicated. I think if you're working with a partner who knows what they're doing, then that collaboration can be very smooth

Gemma

Well, everyone needs an Emily

Emily

But I think, not being afraid to ask questions and also being very open to having questions asked of you as well. Having all that information up front is just a lifesaver and also allows the whole process then to go quite smoothly. And I think having a clear idea of what you want out of the translation process, what are your end objectives? How do you foresee things going? And having an idea of the process and where you fit into that, it can also really help

And I think also being sure that the partner that you're working with is going to deliver on that quality. Taking the time to find somebody that not only fits in terms of your own processes and feels like the right value fit for you, but is also going to ensure that you're getting a good product at the end of the process as well

Ross Dickie

If any of our listeners want to find their own Emily, where can they get in touch with you

Emily

You can connect with me on LinkedIn, or you can visit our website, which is www.comtectranslations.co.uk

Ross Dickie

Cool. Okay. We'll move on now to our regular feature, What I Learned This Week, where we each share something we've picked up in the past seven days. Gemma, would you like to get us started

Gemma

Yeah. I've been delving into an article that I saw in the National Geographic. I think it was the December issue about pain. And it's, they're trying to look at novel ways to, well, to understand pain, but also to reduce people's sensation of pain. Because often pain comes on when we are, when we injure ourselves or, for instance. But then once that injury has healed, often pain can stay

They're looking at all manner of kind of understanding how that works, but then also how pain killers are used, where you have a terrible overuse of opioids in the health industry. So they're looking at that. And I saw the very first thing that came up in this article was they're using VR. They're giving people who are having operations, for instance, these huge VR goggles and letting them play games as they're being operated on. And that, because it is a kind of distraction and it works by, well, yeah, I guess you're not thinking about the pain so much. It quietens down that sensation and yeah. Provides a really pleasant way to while away your operation

Yeah. Just thought that was fascinating. Another application of VR, which I know the learning industry is getting into too

Ross Dickie

That's very cool.

Emily

That is very cool.

Ross Dickie

Emily, what did you learn this week

Emily

Well, mine's not quite as high brow as that, I'm afraid

Ross Dickie

No, nor is mine, don't worry

Emily

Okay, good. One of my colleagues, I think posted a news article earlier on his LinkedIn and I had a look, and apparently Meghan Markle is now being used as a verb. So to Meghan Markle something

Ross Dickie

What?

Gemma

What does it mean?

Emily

Apparently it means putting your mental health first, taking a step back from things and really putting yourself at the forefront. If you're on a night out, for example, and you decide that actually, you know what? An early night is the way forward, then you're Meghan Markle-ing

So, I mean, it's just another example really isn't it? Of how pop culture and all sorts can have an impact on the English language. I think another one we were talking about was when, to Google, came into the English dictionary. And selfie, and all those things. But yeah, I found that one quite funny

Gemma

That was good. I like that.

Ross Dickie

Yeah. And on theme as well for our topic this week, we've got a language related thing

Emily

Yeah. That happened to be a coincidence.

Ross Dickie

Yeah. Mine is more inane than the two of yours. Over the weekend, I met my fiance's parents for the first time. And while we were in Savannah, in Georgia visiting them, I completed my first escape room, which yeah, it was really good fun actually. I highly recommend the experience if you've never done an escape room before

But the whole theme was that it was prohibition. You're in Savannah. And we were playing detectives trying to crack our way into a speakeasy to seize a shipment of Tommy guns. And my fiance's family is quite conservative. They don't drink at all. And one of the clues which I, slightly to my embarrassment, got immediately, was a series of photographs with names under them. And I instantly recognized the names as brands of whiskey and tequila

So I don't know if I necessarily endeared myself to my in-laws, but I at least helped us complete the game. I thought in the moment, I thought it was more important to complete than

Gemma

But you are Scottish, if you didn't know your whiskey

Ross Dickie

Well, that was my excuse. That was my excuse. Everybody in Scotland knows these. Yeah

Gemma

Yes.

Ross Dickie

And that's all for this week. If you'd like to share your thoughts on the show, you can find us on Twitter. You can tweet me @RossEW_Dickie. You can tweet Gemma

Gemma

At Gemma Towersey.

Ross Dickie

I think that's right.

And you can tweet Emily.

Emily

At Comtec Translate.

Ross Dickie

You can also tweet @Emerald_Works. To find out more about Emerald Works, or performance support tool kit that support e-learning and LMS, visit emeraldworks.com

If you enjoyed the show, please leave us a review wherever you get your podcasts. Thanks for listening, bye for now

Emily Decker

Emily Decker

Account Manager, Comtec

Francophile Emily has been with Comtec since 2017. She has a BA in Modern Languages as well as an MA in Translation Studies, and spent her gap year in Brittany eating crepes!

Working with some of Comtec’s key clients across various sectors including eLearning, automotive and creative, Emily is Comtec’s go-to person for a multilingual, multi-service project due to her excellent organisation skills. As well as speaking 3 different languages (French, Spanish and Portuguese), Emily also helps us to pronounce the trickiest of Welsh words, having grown up in Wales.

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Ross Dickie

Ross Dickie

Learning Experience Designer, Emerald Works

Ross has been working in L&D since 2015 and is a key member of the instructional design team at Emerald Works. Most of his time is dedicated to writing articles, scoping infographics and contributing to video projects.
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Gemma Towersey

Gemma Towersey

Learning Experience Manager, Emerald Works

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About the author

Ross Dickie

Ross Dickie

Learning Experience Designer
Ross has been working in L&D since 2015 and is a key member of the instructional design team at Emerald Works. Most of his time is dedicated to writing articles, scoping infographics and contributing to video projects.

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