links for 2008-05-16
The scalability of language; machine translation

The scalability of language and conversations

iStock_000005475259XSmall.jpgThere is a game that every American kid plays in school at one point in time called telephone (also known as Chinese whispers). The idea is that all of the kids line up in a single-file line and then the person on one end of the line whispers a sentence to the person next to them like "Steve Jobs is the CEO of Apple, pass it on". What always happens though, is as the message is passed along it evolves and changes until the last person has something like "Apples are oh so good for you". (The game only works until the age when kids know what the experiment is and then they start intentionally changing it.)

Now, imagine you were playing the same game in a room where nobody spoke the same language. One of the biggest challenges for most marketers, journalists, advertisers and PR practitioners who leverage the Web to operate in the global economy is the scalability of language. This is something that I think about often as I blog, record videos and audio and I work day-to-day on global campaigns for major brands.

Machine translation is nearly useless. What I mean by machine translation is the use of automatic translation scripts (like Google Translate or Systran). This is almost 100% useless unless you only need a vague idea of what is being talked about. There is no substitute for localized translation by a native speaker.

The normal tactic for most marketers, when dealing with language, is to create multiple versions of content all translated into the local dialect under a global umbrella. This works well for written content (outside of having multiple copies of content), but you end up with divergent conversations even though the ideas overlap and each would benefit from the other's experience.

The limitations of video
One area that I feel the effects of more often than not is the limitation of video. When I create a video in English, I am almost entirely locked in to only reach English speakers. It doesn't do much good to Spanish speakers or German speakers, because so much of the value is in the spoken word.

At the same time, video is a superior tool to bridge distance and make people feel like they are together. It's also great for education purposes. So, how can we bridge the scalability of language as marketers, content creators and human beings?

The challenge of conversations
Another big challenge happens when organic customer conversations cross languages. Right now there is no real good way to combine conversations from language silos. Imagine the perspective we could have if people from around the world could have cross-language conversations. That would certainly be powerful.

Most social networks are separated as well where each language is kept separate from each other. Bi-lingual users have a very hard time crossing back and forth. The experience is certainly not fluid. Word of mouth suffers the same limitations.

Over the next couple of days I am going to feature a few of the ways that language is slowly and methodically starting to scale with content.

In the meantime, how do you deal with language? Do you ignore it for now or is it something that is always at the back of your mind? I'd love to hear your thoughts.

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