Translation apps are all the rage in 2016. Google, Facebook, Skype and Instagram are all using tech tools to try and break down language barriers. However, despite the undoubtedly impressive technological advancements that have led to these translation apps they are not without their flaws.
The technology is quite new, and therefore ill-equipped to tackle something as complex as language. For this reason translation apps have been criticised for their inability to produce a localised translation. Instead they offer a literal translation, although this is useful for individual words, translation apps usually translate longer phrases into gibberish.
In China this is particularly problematic as the sentence structure of Mandarin and Cantonese differs significantly from English. In a country where over half the people don’t have access to the internet how useful can translation apps actually be?
Why translation is especially difficult in China
Chinese is the most commonly spoken language in the world, however, there are over 50 dialects and many are not mutually intelligible. Despite a huge push by the Beijing based government to spread Mandarin, many Chinese people speak a local dialect that are unlikely to be available on translation apps.
In fact, even Mandarin is not available on many translation apps. For example, Word Lens, a translation app owned by Google, supports 27 languages but doesn’t offer a Mandarin translation service. This is despite the fact that over a billion people speak Mandarin.
Communication can be particularly challenging for English language businesses as China scores particularly poorly in English proficiency tests. In the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL), China finished 105th out of 163 countries. To put that score into context, the Philippines finished 35th, South Korea finished 80th and North Korea ranked 96th.
Could translation apps actually work in China?
According to the China Internet Network Information Center, there a 464 million smartphone users in China, that number may seem fairly small when bearing in mind the country’s population of 1.5 billion. However, considering there’s only around 590 million people with internet access, the number of smartphone users is significant.
Since the ‘reform and opening up’ policy that first introduced China to foreign investment in 1978, China has enjoyed rapid economic growth. This has resulted in a rise in its global GDP share, from 5.2% in 1980 to 17.5% in 2008. As Western businesses and people head to the Far East, opportunities are rife, as is miscommunication.
With almost 600 million internet users, and the second largest economy on the planet, there is a great impetus, and potentially great profit, for tech firms to supply a solution to the translation problem in China.
They are certainly trying. Skype are the latest in a long line of major tech applications launching translation tools. Google Translate is also available in China, however, Google is only China’s third most popular search engine. China’s largest search engine, Baidu, has it’s own translation app that uses similar technology.
These translation apps are interesting, impressive and can be very useful in certain situations. The problem is that they are so new. Although tech firms are finding innovative ways to improve them, they can’t yet be relied upon to provide a flawless translation.
Should businesses use translation apps?
Although breaking down language barriers and encouraging communication is of course positive, businesses should be wary of using translation apps. Much of the criticism of translation apps is that they only offer word for word translation. This means that they’re useful for monolinguals reading a road sign or a menu, but not so much for a company trying to effectively communicate with local people.
The potential ramifications of using literal translation apps and tools are significant for businesses that rely on having an insight into the language, culture and values of the Chinese people. Although a translation app may get you through a two week holiday, for a business venture they simply do not suffice.
For businesses, a professional translation service is still the most reliable way to communicate effectively. To find out more about how translation can help your business in China, visit our Cantonese or Mandarin language pages. Alternatively, request a free quote today.