Lost In Translation

By: Mike Provost

Back in 1987, Pope John Paul II made a much anticipated visit to Miami, Florida.  He was greeted with tremendous fanfare, publicity, and (some would say) runaway marketing.  Amidst all of this, an enterprising T-shirt maker had printed shirts for the Spanish-speaking market, and hoped to sell large numbers of them during the Pope’s visit.   Unfortunately for him, instead of printing “I saw the Pope!” (el Papa), the shirts proudly proclaimed “I saw the potato!” (la papa).

The internet is replete with examples of such advertising translations gone horribly awry.  Some of these are true, and some are just the stuff of Urban Legends.  Whether they’re amusing or scary probably depends on what you do for a living, but the stories illustrate a persistent problem with trying to express something in such a way that is understandable to a wide and diverse audience. 

We’ve all experienced it; whether in business conversations, with friends and family, or just out on the town.  It’s that quizzical “huh?” look, when trying to explain something we think is so simple, funny, or interesting, to someone who, (from our perspective), just does not get it.  One of the underlying issues here is simply context.  While words are relatively easy to translate, it’s the context that gets you.  The problem is that context can vary widely due to a person’s age, education, language, society, culture, personal experience, and much more.

The same is certainly true when trying to design or configure software for use across a global industry like Hospitality (See? You knew we’d make it here eventually).  For a while, the trend was away from translatable labels and toward visually appealing icons.  The problem is, since they’re not translatable, it’s very difficult to find images which speak correctly to people across all markets.  So now, with some exceptions, the trend is back toward icons with translatable text.  But, if the icon still doesn’t say anything to the user without the text, what good is it?  Is it just window dressing?

This is one of the challenges we’re tackling at MICROS-Fidelio, while we work with our global partners to build OPERA 9, the next generation of our Opera Enterprise Solution.  We’re currently testing a new way of submitting translation for the text elements, which makes it easier to collaborate across multiple locations, and to get those changes applied quicker and easier than before.  However, the issue of finding the correct icons can still be a challenge.  For example, what image universally says “Traces” or “Queue Rooms” to people from widely diverse cultures and languages?

We continue to work on these as we move forward, and when a better idea is presented, we will often go back and change something we’ve already done.  We welcome new ideas every day in our attempt to avoid our own mashed-up Potato / ‘Pope-tato’ scenario.  So, if inspiration has sparked you, feel free to drop us a line and let us know your thoughts!  After all, even if they’re only half-baked, they’re sure to have appeal.

One thought on “Lost In Translation

  1. Mary Provost
    March 8, 2012 at 1:58 pm

    Well put…when I have non-English speaking students, it is hard to sometimes explain what I just said in terms that they understand. :))

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