Which language is most “important”?

To determine which language is the most “important” globally, we first must define the term “important”. Does it mean the language spoken by the most people, or the language spoken in the most countries, or the language of the most economically-developed nation, or…?

Global Language Network. Credit: S. Ronen et al., PNAS 2014. Interactive version: http://language.media.mit.edu/visualizations/books.

Global Language Network. Credit: S. Ronen et al., PNAS 2014. Interactive version.

MIT Assistant Professor César Hidalgo and his team have come up with a way to answer this question in today’s globalized context: it’s the language that connects the most people. And, not surprisingly, they’ve discovered that “being born into a highly connected language is a better predictor of whether that person is going to be important or not, than being born into a language that is very populous, or that is spoken by people who are very wealthy.”

So, how did they determine which language is “most-connected”? The team used the Web and various repositories of data that enabled them to connect information and map languages spoken with others. They used Twitter, books (over 2.2 million volumes representing over 1,000 languages) and Wikipedia, connecting books translated from one language into another, articles on Wikipedia edited by humans (not bots) to see if editors were writing in multiple languages, and over a billion tweets sent by 17 million users in 73 languages, noting a connection each time a tweet was sent in more than one language.

Being able to communicate with a wider number of people gives one a certain amount of power because of the greater number of people who can be influenced. The team discovered that, after controlling for the income and population of language speakers, “[t]he centrality of a language in the global language network is a significantly strong predictor of whether that language produces a large number of successful people,” says Hidalgo.

So, which language was found to be the most highly connected? No surprises here: English, with over 50% of all Internet communication. Other language hubs (though to a far lesser extent) include Russian, German and Spanish.

Bad translations are not always a laughing matter

A professional translator is far more than someone who speaks a couple of languages; a professional translator not only has native-level skills in both languages; he or she will consider both the terminology and register of the message to be interpreted (the text), and also the target audience to which it is directed.

Errors in register, terminology and culture can result not only in a garbled or inaccurate message, but can cause PR and legal nightmares as well. A poorly translated contract or tender may lead to faulty business decisions with enormous financial and PR fallout. Cross-cultural translation blunders can confuse or even offend target audiences, especially in new markets, resulting in negative financial consequences and damage to a company’s reputation. And while some of the translation mistakes you see below are funny, it should not be forgotten that inaccurate translations of medical prescriptions and medical information have actually resulted in the injury and death of patients.

Bad Marketing Translations

 Translation errorsSource: Rudy.Keysteuber @ Flickr.


Bad TranslationSource: Heima001


Bad Restaurant TranslationSource: raquelseco

Funny translationSource: Acula 

Bad TranslationsSource: Quinn.anya @ Flickr

A guide to understanding translation costs

In today’s globalized world, accessing translation services can be as easy as googling “translations” and taking your pick from the myriad of options appearing on your screen. You’ll find translation agencies and freelance translators all ready to undertake your translation project…for a price.

Some lower-end agencies charge a flat-rate per-word fee for a particular language. In some cases, you can even go to a website, enter the source and target languages and the number of words to be translated and be given an automatic quote. No consideration is given to the many underlying factors that determine whether a translation project is done to a professional standard or not…for these service providers, translating your document is simply a matter of languages and number of words. These agencies usually have lists of translators and mass-mail project offers to them, with no consideration given to expertise or experience. Quality is secondary to their goal of getting the job done as quickly as possible at the lowest price, period.

But in the business world, your website or printed documentation may be all that you have to give that great “first impression” that will grow your business. In the business world, a professional appearance and top-quality products can make or break a company. The best translation agencies understand that, and are ready to partner with you to show your clients – current or potential – how great your company is.

And it all starts with your words…translated into the language of your current and potential clients.


Translation fees


But just how are translation costs determined?

There are a number of factors that top-quality translation agencies (and translators) take into account when offering a quote for a translation project. The most important include:

Language pair. Logically, translations between common languages (such as English and Spanish, for example) cost less than translations between less-common languages (e.g., Swedish, Gaelic, Croatian) or between unusual language combinations (e.g., Spanish to Finnish) simply as a result of the law of supply and demand. If the target language is a specific language variant (Chilean Spanish, for example), your translation may cost more than if you request a general language variant (e.g., Latin American Spanish).

Agency or freelancer? A translation from a top-quality agency will generally cost more than a freelancer’s translation due to issues like business overhead, etc. However, choosing to go with an agency may be the right option for you if you need your text translated into a number of languages (for example, in the case of on-line businesses with a global target audience), as freelancers generally offer services in one or two languages only. Also, translation agencies have quality control processes that usually include at least one proofreading by another translator or a professional editor.

Subject matter and level of complexity. Here the rule is quite simple: the more difficult the subject matter is, the higher the translation rate. Top-quality translation agencies have a roster of translators who are highly experienced in specific fields; they may have received training in the topic in question, worked professionally in the field or have translated a large number of similar texts in the past. Rates for texts that are complex, highly specialized, technical or otherwise demanding are higher in order to compensate the increased level of expertise of the translator carrying out the project.

Turnaround times. Perhaps you’re in a rush and need your translation “yesterday”…or maybe you’re not and you’re happy with having it ready for you next week. Deadlines are another determining factor in translation pricing. Top-quality translation agencies have quality control processes that usually include at least one proofreading by another translator or a professional editor and – like anything else that is done well – this takes time. If you have a highly technical document, if the language combination is unusual, if your text requires DTP services, getting your document through the entire translation/quality control process becomes more complex, as does assembling the team that is going to carry out the project. Longer deadlines give agencies and translators more leeway in finding the most competent, yet cost-effective, providers of the services you need, and that means a lower cost for you.

Volume. The economy of scale does apply to translations. Handling one large translation project consumes less time and fewer resources than the same number of words spread among several projects. This means that the costs in human and material resources are lower for the agency or translator, and should mean a savings for you, too. This is also true for regular clients; once the agency or translator gets to know your particular needs (style, terminology, etc.), you may be able to negotiate a lower rate.

Document format. Simple formats (MSWord or plain text) take less preparation and handling than complex formats (documents converted from .pdf files, or documents with DTP characteristics such as brochures) as the latter cost more because it takes more time to process them.

Extra services. In today’s fast-paced world, it often makes sense to turn an entire project over to one service provider, and translating your document or website is no different. Top-quality agencies often offer one-stop shop complementary services so that you don’t have to seek out a DTP specialist or web page designer to get your project up and running. Of course, these services entail extra charges, but the savings in time, effort and stress may more than compensate the cost. When the team working on your project speaks the languages involved, you can rest assured that your web page or document will contain no language-based errors.

When you consider entrusting the translation of your document to a translation agency or freelance translator, remember that the text to be translated will be part of your company’s image and that it is far easier to create a good brand image than it is to fix a poor one. Put your company’s image into the hands of experienced professionals who will provide the expertise and outstanding quality you need to show your business in the very best light.

Croqueta, azotea and coco: Some lunfardo words for head

Lunfardo is a rich and often slyly humorous dialect, and nowhere is its imaginative use of language more evident than with the plethora of words it has for “head” (cabeza in standard Spanish).


As can be expected, many of these terms are related to its shape:

coco – coconut

mate – the hollowed-out gourd used for drinking yerba mate

calabaza – pumpkin

sandía – watermelon

cucusa/cucuza – from the Italian cucuzza (pumpkin)

croqueta – croquette

marote – from the French marotte (dummy head used to display wigs or hats)

bocho/bocha – the wooden ball used to play the game of bocce.

Others relate to the head’s position on the body:

azotea – roof terrace

cúpula – cupula or dome

chiminea – chimney

bóveda – dome

terraza – terrace

altiyo – variant spelling of altillo, attic or upper cupboard

capiya – variant spelling of capilla, cowl or hood

coroniya – variant spelling of coronilla, crown or bald patch on the head

Some make reference to the head as the seat of wisdom:

sabiola/sabiondo – from sabio (wise)

And some to its function or action:

sesera – from sesos (brain)

caspera – from caspa (dandruff)

sombrerera – hat holder

rompepeines – comb-breaker

Or to its appearance:

aceitosa – from aceitoso (oily, as in the hair oil formerly used by men before the advent of hair gels)

Other terms refer to it as some kind of mechanical or electronic calculation device:

computadora – computer

carburadora – carburator

I.B.M. – brand of computer

registradora – cash register

Finally, we have the word “testamento”, a play on the words testa (head) and testamento (will and testament)

These words are also found in a number of expressions:

Hacerse el bocho: to have sexual fantasies about someone

Tener gente en la azotea: to be crazy

Estar de la cucuza: to be crazy

No te hagas la croqueta: don’t overthink it

Ser un bocho: to be smart, to be a “brain”

Bilingual drug labels: Can you trust them?

In recent years, laws have been passed in the U.S. at the national and local levels to guarantee that Spanish speakers (and others who don’t speak English) are provided with the instructions for taking the medication in their language. The aim was to make sure that those with a low level of English proficiency were provided with instructions they could understand in order to prevent taking the medication at the wrong dosage or time, thereby making the treatment more effective and less likely to cause an overdose, and leading to a healthier patient and fewer associated costs.


Unfortunately, though, instead of helping matters, it appears that the translations can be wildly inaccurate, leading to confusion and even injuries. What was meant to help the patient get well has instead often hindered this process.

Research carried out in 2010 in a New York City borough with a large Spanish speaking population revealed a veritable tangle of errors that would leave any Spanish speaker at risk of taking the wrong amount at the wrong time, or even of medicating their children or others who depend on their care incorrectly.

Of the 316 pharmacies invited to take part in the research, 286 (91%) agreed to participate. Of these, 209 (73%) provided medicine labels in Spanish, with independent pharmacies more likely to do so than chain or hospital-based pharmacies. Of those providing labeling in Spanish, 86% used one of 14 computerized translation programs to translate the instructions (70% of the pharmacies used one of three different major programs), while 11% used staff members. Only 3% used a professional translator.

Seventy-six medicine labels were assessed by the researchers who found that, while the majority of pharmacies provided labels with instructions in Spanish, a shockingly high 50% of these labels were translated inaccurately, including 43% with incomplete (mixed English and Spanish) translations; an additional six contained misspellings or grammar errors.

These errors were mainly of three types:

Confusing directions: instructions to take the medication “once” a day could be interpreted as being told to take it eleven (spelled “once” in Spanish) times a day, potentially leading to an overdose.

Misspellings: Typing errors by the pharmacist (e.g., “poca” – which means “little” – instead of “boca” – which means “mouth”) could lead to a patient taking less than the prescribed amount. A case in point was the patient who was prescribed iron supplements to treat anemia; the patient was taking only one drop a day instead of the prescribed amount. Fortunately, the physician saw that the patient wasn’t responding as expected to the treatment and took the time to find out what had gone wrong.

Spanglish: Instructions with words like “dropperfuls”, “take with food”, “apply topically”, “for 7 days”, “apply to affected areas” were often simply left altogether untranslated, leaving out information that could very well be essential to the effectiveness of the treatment and thus the health of the patient, and also leading to confusion about the meaning of words (e.g., “once”, above).

Clearly, caring for a patient is a task that must be overseen by human beings able to use their professional judgment, not computer programs incapable of discerning a correct translation from an incorrect one. While health care costs must certainly be efficiently managed and contained to the extent possible, it is obviously counterproductive to provide and pay for treating patients when the very treatment itself may be administered incorrectly, leading to wasted time, effort and medication while at the same time threatening the health of the very person at the center of the treatment program: the patient.

The solution is clear: pharmacies must invest in providing accurate medicine labels so that patients understand the instructions; the costs associated with the financial and social losses arising from mislabeled medicine are far more expensive than hiring professional translators to do the job right from the very beginning.

Pharmacists that understand this and provide their customers with accurate information are likely to enjoy the trust of their customers, gain their loyalty and, in the end, will know that they are fulfilling part of their oath: to embrace and advocate changes that improve patient care.

New Words in the DRAE

The new 23rd edition of the Dictionary of Spanish Language of the Royal Spanish Academy (DRAE) has just been published; nearly 5,000 of its 93,111 entries are newly included words, while 1,350 previously accepted words have been eliminated from this latest edition.

Spanish dictionary

The new words reflect the invaluable contribution of American Spanish to the language and to its multiculturalism (coincidentally, multiculturalidad is one of the new words) – with some 19,000 of the entries being Americanisms used in at least three Latin American countries – as well as the importance of new technologies and cultural trends and their impact on the language.

But these new terms reflect not only the growing importance of technology in society, but also the broad dissemination they receive via this technology throughout the Spanish-speaking world.

The following new Spanish words derived from English should be easy for most English speakers to recognize:


Some may be slightly more difficult to figure out:


While the meanings of others – especially those based on social phenomena –may not be obvious at all:


Finally, let us not forget to bid farewell to the 1,350 words no longer officially part of the Spanish language. These words were chosen for elimination from the DRAE for having fallen into disuse since the fifteen century (alidona, bajotraer, sagrativamente) or having appeared in a single text (often due to a misprint or spelling misinterpretation (boleador, calántica), a phenomenon known as “lexical ghosts”.

International e-commerce: When marketing in English only isn’t enough

Today, the world can be your global marketplace, thanks to e-commerce, the buying and/or selling of goods and services over the internet or via other electronic services. The proliferation of B2B (business-to-business) and C2C (consumer-to-consumer) web portals and other marketing platforms has made it possible for companies and individuals across the world to shop for, compare and choose exactly the products they are looking for, and has motivated businesses ranging from small, home-based mom-and-pop operations to some of the world’s largest multinationals to market their products to target audiences across the planet.

Yet reaching your potential customers and then getting them to actually buy your product is far more nuanced than you might at first imagine, and language plays a highly significant role in the customer’s decision to choose your product.

This highly important issue – which is often overlooked, underestimated (or, sadly, even ignored) by companies engaging in e-commerce – was highlighted in a recent survey (Can’t Read, Won’t Buy: How Translation Affects Global E-Commerce) conducted by independent research firm Common Sense Advisory (CSA Research).

online-buying-languagesImage courtesy of FreeDigitalPhotos.net

This survey included more than 3,000 global consumers in 10 countries where the official languages do not include English: Brazil, China, Egypt, France, Germany, Indonesia, Japan, Russia, Spain, and Turkey. These countries were chosen because either they have big economies, large populations or they speak a language used in several countries). The survey was conducted in an official language of each country, but respondents were also asked to rate their own ability to read English. It looked at consumers’ online languages preferences and how these impacted their purchasing decisions. Factors such as nationality, English-language proficiency, global brand recognition, and the ability to conduct transactions in local currencies were taken into account. A market research specialist firm handled the survey and data collection, while CSA’s statistician reviewed the raw data and ran a series of calculations and correlations to determine the results.

The results showing the importance of marketing in the local language were clear:

  • consumers spend more time on sites in their own language
  • consumers are more likely to buy at sites in their own language
  • people prefer products with information in their own language
  • most consumers prefer products in their own language
  • most buyers will pay more for products in their own language
  • language becomes more of an issue when buyers need help
  • all nationalities agree on wanting customer care in local languages
  • language affects behavior throughout the customer experience.

Only in a few cases (for example, consumer comfort buying in other languages varies by nationality, lower prices matter more than local language in some countries, and buyers more proficient in English feel more at ease buying in English) did the results seem to favor English-language only marketing, although these characteristics tended to be restricted to certain countries or those who felt themselves to be proficient in English.

Other findings from the survey include the fact that 30% of the respondents never make purchases from English-language sites, and another 29% do so only rarely. Half would prefer that at least the navigation elements and some of the content appear in their language, while 17% of these feel strongly that this should be the case. Conventional industry wisdom says that potential customers flee mixed-language websites, and this survey has definitively shown this to be simply untrue.

The survey’s results are certainly surprising to the many global marketers – both consumers and companies – that have generally been operating on the assumption that potential customers with basic English skills are successfully targeted with either the original English-language e-commerce portal, or with an English translation of the portal’s original language content.

Based on this unexpected outcome, Common Sense Advisory points out that website localization (which results in culturally appropriate translations tailored to the target audience) is indispensable to any company or individual wishing to sell more of its products to its potential global customers and, indeed, must be part of the strategy to provide a positive user experience and engage potential customers in a brand dialog.

Google Announces the Creation of a Translate Community

Google recently launched a Translate Community, inviting language-lover volunteers to help improve the accuracy of Google Translate services.

At first sight, this seems like a win-win situation, as long-suffering Google Translate users have often voiced their frustration with the quality of the translations rendered, while Google gets free knowledge (and labor) from a virtual community of volunteers who speak more than one language. (This is another issue: Google is a multinational corporation operating with billions of dollars annually; one would think that it could afford to pay professionals to do the job right!).

Is All that Glitters Gold?

Nevertheless, it might make sense to heed the old adage, “If it seems too good to be true, it probably is” because – as anyone who works in translation knows all too well – speaking is not translating, any more than walking is dancing.

Together with all the usual issues associated with crowdsourcing (susceptibility to malicious attacks, quality of work in general, reliability of contributors, problems with communication, and so on), there are drawbacks that are specific to collaborative translation/editing on a massive scale. This can be further complicated when editing a machine-generated translation, i.e., one that from the beginning lacks the human translation of its meaning. It seems rather like weekend DIYers building a skyscraper on a foundation of sand…

The Importance of Human Expertise

No matter how sophisticated, to date no machine translation system has been able to approach the professional translator’s sensitivity to language variant, context and register, essential elements in any good translation…and something that language-lovers volunteering their time and effort cannot be expected to contribute with their efforts, no matter how well-meaning or dedicated they may be.

The Pareto principle (aka the 80-20 rule) tells us that, for many events, about 80% of the effects are generated by about 20% of the causes. It remains to be seen if the Google Translate community will have enough knowledgeable volunteers who are active and expert enough to provide the accurate information needed to guarantee translation accuracy in sufficient volume, and how this will balance out with the contributions of those who are not.

A Bad Translation is Worse than No Translation at All

One of the most critical issues, however, might actually be one that is not commonly addressed: the illusion of reliability. Most translators have dealt with clients who want them to compete pricewise with machine translation (which is, of course, impossible) and have found themselves having to explain the pitfalls of Google Translate and other machine translation services in order to justify their rates. Some clients have finally “discovered” (perhaps after a negative experience!) that machine translation is not suitable for use in any but the most limited of circumstances, but it remains to be seen whether this new project to improve Google Translate services will lend a false illusion of reliability to what will nevertheless remain nothing more than machine translation.

Translate Community

Effective Client Management in the Translation Industry

Running a translation project efficiently is not easy. There are many aspects that Project Managers need to take into account to ensure that clients are satisfied and that they choose their translation agency over and over again. Each project should be well understood right from the beginning in order to anticipate potential risks or problems that could lead to unnecessary delays in the turnaround time.


What aspects should Project Managers take into consideration?

Successful translation projects are result not only of the ability and expertise of language professionals but also of a variety of factors that Project Managers need to handle.

In order to manage clients effectively, translation agencies need to pay attention to certain aspects that contribute to a positive relationship with clients.

Know your client

Why does your client need that document translated?

Has he hired a translation agency or professional translator before? If he has, was he satisfied with the results?

Before starting working on a translation, Project Managers need to do a careful research of their client’s requests as this will allow them to think of all the necessary professionals that will be involved in the project (translators, proofreader, DTP specialists, etc). Quote should never be sent before seeing the files that will be translated or knowing full details of the project.

Project Managers should educate their clients.  Sometimes they have unreal expectations for their translation:  they might want it delivered sooner than what is possible, ask for a translation to be delivered with identical format without having the source documents, etc . Project Managers should also request the final text that needs to be translated. If clients provide edited versions once the translation has been assigned, this will cause unnecessary delays and changes in the original price.

The client’s expectations need to be documented and confirmed in writing, and everybody involved in the project should be well aware of them. Project Managers need to monitor the translation project constantly and make sure that everybody is on the same page.

Clients also need to be informed about the translation process and how the workflow is managed. This is essential in order to guarantee the highest quality and an on-time delivery.

Managing the Client Review Process

Once the document is translated, your client might ask someone from his company to check it.

Define who will be resposible for this: What are their qualifications? Are they specialist in the subject matter or just someone who speaks the target language? A timeline should be set, otherwise you could get a review request several months after completing a project.   Last but not least, your client should clearly track changes, ideally in Word or in PDF.

What May Compromise an Effective Client Management?

Client management can be seriously compromised if any or some of these situations occur:

  • The information available is not enough: Either because the client is not clear about his expectations or because he doesn’t provide enough information about the project or because the Project Manager does not communicate fluently with the translator. The lack of information ends up affecting the way the project is managed.
  • Changing scope and deadlines:  Adding or removing text from a document or delaying the turnaround time of a translation contributes to compromising the client management.
  • Third parties: From editors to designers, third parties participating directly or indirectly in the translation project may cause unexpected delays in the turnaround time of the translated document.
  • Lack of leadership from the client or the Project Manager.
  • Lack of motivation or negative attitude from the Project Manager.

Managing clients effectively is not impossible. Translation agencies should make sure their Project Managers have the right skills and training so that they can complete a project on time, on budget, and with high quality results.

Will machines reach human levels of translation quality by the year 2029?

Will it be possible to rely on the accuracy of a machine translated document by the year 2029? Will human levels of translation quality be reached by machines and software programs?

Translation and interpreting services have been traditionally considered human activities with little to almost no space for technical interventions. However, technical developments in language and translation software have led translators and interpreters to assume that their job will be highly influenced by machines by the year 2029.

Language is a living entity. It’s much more than a collection of isolated words and expressions. Each language embodies a cultural background, cultural concepts and a certain level of subtlety that even the most accurate and highly trained translator cannot translate perfectly.


In the video below, Mr. Ray Kurzweil –a well-known inventor, author and futurist- points out that translators and interpreters should embrace language-related technology advancements as a means of expanding their translating and interpreting abilities. No machine will ever be able to capture the subtlety in all languages as many expressions simply cannot be translated isolated and without context. He adds that even though there’s a natural resistance against translation machines, the truth is that the translated documents, both verbal and written, that they produce tend to get better and sound more natural over time. He accepts that machine translators may not be useful to translate romantic sentiments or more poetic forms but they are actually adequate for translating business discussions and everyday conversations.

According to Ray Kurzweil, when these technologies are first introduced, they tend not to work very well and people tend to dismiss them. They are perfected; they improve their performance and sneak up on us, and even though they seem revolutionary, they’ve been around for years already.

However, Kurzweil is cautious and emphasizes that translation technologies will not replace human translators and interpreters. By the year 2029, machines will be able to provide human levels of translation quality in certain type of translations and in certain translation fields but people’s need to learn foreign languages in order to enjoy and understand a literary piece in its source language or the need to rely on a professional translator to understand the meaning of a poetic writing will not be altered.

In a globalized world, accurate translation services are in great demand even if the economic context is not the best one. Translation companies can and should take advantage of translation technologies as they become available as they are useful tools that help them be ready for globalization and provide their clients with expanded language services.

Ray Kurzweil on Translation Technology from Nataly Kelly on Vimeo.