Does Google Auto-Translate spell trouble for your email campaign?

Last week Google launched its auto-translate feature for Gmail, in theory making email a lot simpler for people who don’t speak the same language.

The automatic message translation (AMT) tool, which started as an experiment in Gmail Labs during 2009, has finally graduated to full inbox operating status.

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AMT works by providing you with an automatically prompted translate button for any message that Google recognises to be in your non-default language. So, if your default is set to Russian, Gmail will assume that’s what you want everything to be translated to. However, you can still switch it to any other language you prefer from a drop-down menu next to the translate button in the email header.

Gmail can also remember to automatically translate all other languages into your own language by selecting “always translate”, which is a convenience setting that the majority of users are likely to rely on.

Alternatively, one can translate on a per-email basis by using the manual translate message option for each new inbox arrival, or even turn off translation for all languages entirely.

AMT is designed to be a powerhouse of verbiage, letting you select from 53 languages — from Afrikaans to Yiddish — that Google can translate your email into.

Yes indeed, it’s now easier than ever to rake in Japanese pen pals who don’t speak ‘Engrish’ too well and like rice kernels, or chat with a friend in Italian without the effort of going to foreign language classes and subsequently pursuing marriage with a woman from the Sicilian district — all in the name of vernacular excellence and bilingual offspring.

According to Jeff Chin, Product Manager for Google Translate, the internet giant “heard immediately from Google Apps for Business users that this was a killer feature for working with local teams across the world. Some people just wanted to easily read newsletters from abroad. Another person wrote in telling us how he set up his mom’s Gmail to translate everything into her native language, thus saving countless explanatory phone calls.”

Chin also said that since message translation was one of Google’s most popular Labs, it decided it was about time to move it into the real world.

Does AMT come at the expense of other features?

Unfortunately, what we know to be true about real-estate, both physical and digital, is that it’s limited.

There can be only so many features in any software suite before it starts to suffer from overpopulation and becomes confusing to users.

Hence the auto-translate move out of the lab and into general use will bring about the retirement of several less popular features — including custom date formats and, *gasp*, the inbox preview — which is a traditional favourite and frequent lifesaver for anyone running an email campaign.

Could my message get lost in translation?

In a word?


While AMT finally eliminates the arduous and humdrum task of copying and pasting phrases directly into Google translate, chances are that users are still going to see more than just a couple of this tool’s familiar and somewhat characteristic fails.

The good news is that now we can all communicate with those typical Americans who never, ever speak a second language.

The bad news is that, much like the experience of driving over a pothole-ridden road, Google cannot guarantee a perfect, wobble-free translation to any readers.

Anyone who has ever made use of one will know that machine translation programs are not as sharp as a fluent human translator.

Therefore, while many people should find this service to be useful for day-in and day-out emails (if they don’t mind the predictable hiccups) AMT should not be relied upon for business messages, marketing communications or Italian love letters, since there’s every possibility it might just turn your e-mail into an e-fail.

Some might also argue that — to begin with — if you’re getting email newsletters in a language you don’t understand, odds are that you probably didn’t personally opt-in for it, except by mistake.

No, your message might not be entirely lost in translation — but the human, audience-relevant elements that usually disappear in the process of machine translation (such as specific slang or clever-but-grammatically-sinful word play) most certainly could.

What can one do to completely prevent mistranslation?


Nothing really.

After all, neither the readers’ default inbox settings nor the inner workings of the Google translation engine are within any marketer’s near-omnipotent ambit.

With that said, there are some safe practices one might follow to decrease the odds of speaking Greek to an Englishman:

  • The first key is within effective newsletter design. By tweaking images and layout, it’s possible to optimise an email so that people can get the gist of what they’re looking at a glance, without necessarily relying on the text.
  • Speaking of images, since there’s no way to mistranslate a graphic, make sure the chief call-outs are also visible in text form on some of these, and ideally clickable. This way, if one’s subscriber is really lost, he or she can simply click on the “display images” action to clarify things.
  • This is common sense, but as having more text will generally increase the margin for error during translation, it is (and always has been) a good idea to keep text as short and concise as possible — saying precisely what one means in as few words and in as plain language as possible.
  • It’s also a good idea to provide a link to a web-based alternative to the email, at or close to the top of the HTML newsletter. Just in case, despite one’s best efforts, there are still issues. This will let each reader view the email in his or her browser, web-page style — in its original, unadulterated form.

But what if one has a multi-lingual client base?

If one is already sending out messages to a subscriber list comprised of various native tongues, there is a definite threat that these emails are going to be rephrased into a number of out-of-context, awkward renditions once the AMT has its way.

What business people can do to counter any subscribers missing out on their carefully-crafted sales-driving lingo, is to include preferred language selection as a required sign-up criteria and to run feedback campaigns for existing subscribers, confirming their preferences.

Once this research has been completed, subscribers can be segmented according to language preferences and separate mailers can be sent to each group, translated in the presence of a human eye, to authentically represent each message.

While this may take more time and effort, it’s a never-fail method for ensuring that a marketer is in fact speaking their consumer’s language.

One world. One language. One spam.

A single little side-effect of Google’s AMT is that, as of now, people everywhere can enjoy being spammed in any language of their choosing.

That’s right, whereas in the past it would have been more obvious to discard the messages that one wouldn’t have been able to decode without referring to the Rosetta stone, it may now take slightly longer to sort through these to find emails of valid interest, because:

  • A newsletter received in a language unfamiliar to you is generally more likely to be one you didn’t ask for.
  • Imperfect translation naturally calls for a greater scrutiny to ensure that an important communication hasn’t been missed, simply due to its contents being anything less than the Queen’s English (or the Tzar’s Russian, for that matter). Thus making it more difficult to “just scan” though one’s list.
  • One will still need to go through one’s spam folder because legitimate emails containing information that’s possibly vital to one’s business will still, as always, inevitably be landing there — for as long as spam filters are also imperfect and don’t conform to set rules or standards globally (much like languages).

At least, that is unless you think that “Dr Max” from Shanghai who emails you over a dozen times a week really is selling useful and World Health Organisation-approved medications.

More seriously, because everything can automatically be translated into your default language, there is a credible risk that one might be mistaking more spam for legitimate messages than before, increasing the possibility of exposure to malware, phishing and other forms of email fraud.

Now… if it could only translate broken English into textbook English, then one would finally be able to understand all those emails from one’s long lost Nigerian oil-magnate uncle, hoping to bequeath his life’s fortunes in exchange for a reasonably modest transfer fee.

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