One of the greatest benefits of living in the 21stcentury has to be how much easier apps have made our lives. From weather apps that can notify you of coming storms to map apps that have virtually eliminated the need to ask for directions, apps have provided exceptional levels of convenience. And one area in which apps have exploded is providing translations. In fact, if you go into Apple’s App Store, typing in “translation app” returns 571 results at the time of writing. Many apps even boast that they can translate between 100 or more different languages.Other services meanwhile, such as app localization, are making our apps more and more widely available,irrespective of language barriers and cultural differences.  

Apps have certainly made traveling in countries where you don’t speak the language much easier. A task that would have meant sifting through a phrase book a few decades ago is now a seamless process of typing something into an app. But translation apps aren’t the be-all and end-all of communicating across cultures. They have some severe limitations, which we’ll explore below, that mean that translation services a still an absolute must in certain situations.

Translation Apps Can’t Handle Complex Content

A translation app might be handy for asking where the bathroom is or ordering food off a menu, but the second the content gets more complex, apps usually run into trouble. For instance, if you want to type out a long story or explanation, it’s likely your app will start producing grammatically inferior language that just doesn’t come across well. As a rule, translations apps can’t handle long or complex paragraphs of text just yet.

An article in the Atlantic recently told of some of the “fun” to be had with Google Translate. Douglas Hofstadter, a professor of cognitive science and comparative literature at Indiana University of Bloomington, and author of “Gödel, Escher, Bach,”ran some small experiments. He started by typing a complex English sentence with many possessives that switched between male and female forms. Sure enough, the French translation came back with wrong grammar because gender possessives are based on items in the French language instead of people.

Later he put in a paragraph from a complex book about Viennese intellectuals. The book was originally in German.Comparing Hofstadter’s English translation to Google Translate shows how inadequate the app is for complex content. 

Here is a line from Hofstadter’s English translation: “The most likely to be dismissed were young scholars who had not yet earned the right to teach university classes.”

Google Translate’s effort? “Young scientists were most vulnerable before their habilitation.” 

Enough said.

Translation Apps Can’t Localize Content

Apps also can’t provide the cultural nuance behind translationsthe waythat localization services can. An example of this would be translating the word goat in Portuguese. Yes, the translator will translate the word for you. However, the translation appwon’t tell you that calling someone a goat is very offensive within the Portuguese culture. In English, calling someone a “silly goat” might come off as gently teasing and even affectionate based on context. It’s far from an affectionate term in Portugal.

Google Translate has even been called sexist due to the gender bias  it conveys. The app uses algorithms to predict which words are probably correct based on the patterns it finds in the huge volumes of text from which it learns. This means Google might pair words like “she” and “nurse,” since those words are often used in the same sentence. A human would know a nurse could be a male.And in modern Western culture, it’s offensive to assume nurses are always female. An algorithm, meanwhile, is likely to blindly translate a feminine pronoun alongside the word ‘nurse’ as a matter of course.(To be fair, Google is starting to roll out different gender translations in certain languages – it just has a long way to go!)

What all this still proves is that, despite the ease of app translation, localization services are still necessary to make sure cross-cultural communications don’t wind up being insensitive.   

Translation Apps Can’t Produce Reliable Business Content

Another realm where Google Translate and its ilk can’t always get content right is in business communications. These environments are filled with industry-specific jargon that a basic translator app simply won’t be able to keep up with. Add to that the nature of business communications, where details must be specific and agreed upon; a single content translation error could cause someone to take an entire project in a wrong direction. 

Business environments can also be very litigious, meaning language must be exact to avoid lawsuits, which can bankrupt  smaller companies in a heartbeat. Contracts themselves must be perfectly understood before signing. And Google Translate has been known to make some pretty large errors, as the examples above show.

A simple translation app also can’t help with translating digital content, as in the cases of website localization, mobile app translation or mobile app localization. Localization services will help keep cultural sensitivities accounted for. They can even optimize non-text user experiences, like images, across multiple cultures.

So, whether you are using a translation app in Apple iOS or Android, remember that translation services are still necessary to localize your content for maximum ease in communicating with people of other cultures!