Why Literal Translation of Keywords Is Not a Good Idea?



Why Literal Translation of Keywords Is Not a Good Idea?d-tags
26 September 2019
Translation machines often turn out to be false friends of those who do SEO internationally. Language can be really problematic when it comes to selecting right keywords and we don’t mean simply orthography or spelling. How to escape the pitfalls and make the process of keyword translation pleasant? Keep reading!



Language barrier is a global issue concerning all companies and corporations which want to develop and go international. Tricky words, unusual translations and numerous idioms will cause a lot of trouble not only for translators but also for SEO professionals. All due to the fact that SEO has its own rules which need to be followed and its own key phrases which differ in various countries. And unfortunately they don’t necessarily have to meet our expectations. Additionally, when doing SEO for your website, you need to remember about the developing machine learning technology, artificial intelligence and numerous changes introduced by search engines. These elements create a really impressive combination which hinders the process of translating numerous keywords. But why proper translation of key phrases is so difficult and is it the fault of the SEO specialists or the translation systems they use?

Keywords - what are they actually?

To find out why translating keywords is so problematic for SEO professionals, we need to start by defining them. It’s not a piece of cake because the ideas of people searching for given objects or services are the lion’s share of every phrase entered into the search engine. And as you can probably suppose, SEO specialists can’t always guess what users have in their minds. It’s particularly relevant when they have to deal with foreigners or people from other cultures who perceive certain aspects of life in a completely different way. All of these will probably make you realize that keywords aren’t only phrases that define specific products but they’re a sort of concept that reflects the expectations of users who hope to find the needed products by entering these short phrases into the search engine. Nevertheless, such an approach to the issue generates further problems - especially for those who use various types of programs or machines for translating keywords. The tools don’t take into account many language or cultural aspects and this can lead to both small and disastrous mistakes when running an SEO process.

Why translating keywords is so problematic?

One language - many issues

It may seem that translating several phrases known as keywords is a perfect task for a basic translation machine. Nothing could be further from the truth - using such tools often gives SEO professionals a hard time. Speech and writing can be very diverse, even if it seems to you that the language you’re dealing with is similar to your mother tongue. As an example we can take the word cinema/movie theater. Why have we provided both terms? Because although they mean basically the same, the first one, known from the coursebooks, is used in the UK and you can come across the latter one in the United States. So if you want to do SEO for your cinema in the United Kingdom, using the American term as a keyword will be a waste of time and money because British Internet users won’t enter such a phrase into their search engines. [caption id="attachment_16479" align="aligncenter" width="750"]Popularity of movie theatre phrase Above you can see a comparison of the popularity of the movie theater phrase in the UK (left) and in the US (right) done with the use of the Semrush tool.[/caption] Keywords translation mem All kinds of linguistic variations that also aren’t taken into account by translation machines are another challenge. Most often such changes result from local dialects and we can observe them in American English where some words lack the u letter present in British English (as in humour in British English and humor in American English). Actually, when it comes to English, the situation is even more complicated, there are dozens of various dialects such as Australian, African or Canadian English. As you can probably guess, due to such diversity most machines aren’t capable of translating texts correctly and as a result using such translations drastically reduce the chances that the SEO process will be successful. The same applies to Spanish. Spanish spoken in Spain differs from the one spoken in South America. Ignorance of these dissimilarities can result in a serious mistake. [caption id="attachment_16484" align="aligncenter" width="674"]Keywords Translation - exemplary vocabulary differences in Spain and South America Exemplary vocabulary differences in Spain and South America. Source: http://blog.dynamiclanguage.com/spanish-variations-between-spain-latin-america[/caption] The most drastic example is the word coger which means to catch in Spain whereas in many countries of South America it’s a polite term to express sexual intercourse. In this case, coger el autobús (catch a bus) should be translated as tomar el autobús. Additionally, the word el autobús isn’t used in most South American countries. In Argentina you’d say el colectivo, in Chile - el micro, in Mexico - el camión, in Venezuela - la Buseta, in Uruguay - el ómnibus and in the Caribbean - la guagua. [caption id="attachment_16486" align="aligncenter" width="394"]Exemplary spanish vocabulary differences keywords translation Source: https://tododeele.wordpress.com/2015/06/04/la-diferencia-de-algunas-palabras-en-espanol/[/caption]

So is language the enemy of SEO specialists?

Translating keywords get even more complicated when you consider more technical aspects of language. When it comes to longer phrases, there may also be a problem with collocations created by juxtaposing two (or more) different words which together gain a completely new, idiomatic meaning not related to the meaning of individual components. Translation machines usually translate such phrases literally so that they don’t make sense in other language. Because of such poor quality translations, you can sometimes see phrases such as “do a photo” instead of “take a photo” on English versions of Polish websites. The situation is very similar in the case of phrasal verbs (meaning verbs juxtaposed with adverbs or prepositions) which have completely different meaning from the meanings of individual elements. This applies to expressions such as get along with, keep up with, or even come in which we use do instinctively. When speaking, people use them naturally, however, translation tools find them very demanding because in many languages there isn’t something like phrasal verbs. Thus, translating them mechanically turns out to be extremely difficult and challenging - very often such idiomatic phrases are simply omitted or translated in a completely illogical, literal way that isn’t helpful in running the SEO process properly.

Keywords vs. false friends

Phrasal verbs or idioms aren’t the only examples of differences and problems that you may encounter while translating keywords. It can also happen that the same word has several meanings, depending on the country where people search it. Trousers and pants are a perfect example. In British English they mean respectively, let’s say, long jeans and the bottom part of underwear. Meanwhile, in American English these two words can be used interchangeably which isn’t taken into account by most translation machines. These words can be defined as homonyms and in this case context is necessary to interpret them correctly. However, it’s hard to talk about context when selecting your keywords as in most cases they appear alone which hampers the task of SEO specialists even more. False friends, meaning words that sound very similar in a foreign language and in your mother tongue but in fact have completely different meanings, are another major gripe of translators and SEO professionals. Here, the Polish word “konfident” (meaning “spy”) and the very similar English word “confident” can be considered false friends. The problem with false friends still hasn’t been solved by numerous translation tools. Moreover, many people, including those working with language on a daily basis, also get tricked by such problematic expressions. And what if a given language doesn’t have an equivalent of a particular word? Or what if a long phrase in your native language can be replaced with only one word in a foreign one? Both cases require the translator’s knowledge and a bit of creativity which can’t be expected of translation machines. A perfect example is the word cliffhanger, which in Polish is translated as "a story trick, consisting in a sudden suspension of action". As you can probably guess, translation tools won’t replace this long Polish phrase with only one word which is its perfect English equivalent. This is another example proving that translating keywords with the use of various tools isn’t a good idea.

Keywords vs. culture (not only the Internet one)

This is not the end of the problems encountered while translating keywords. The phrases entered into the search engine are affected not only by the language but also by the broadly understood culture of the Internet. Which form of a verb will be entered into the search engine? Is there a chance that keyword clusters will contain some unusual variations resulting from their construction? Or maybe there is some regional or slang word that fits your website much better? Everyone who deals with SEO abroad has to answer these questions individually because there is no translation machine able to do it on its own. Translation tools are relatively simple applications that are updated once in a while. Meanwhile, the language, especially the spoken one, develops continually and almost everyday. And more importantly, it doesn’t need to be updated. Search queries are a reflection of the language used on every day basis and this language is subject to constant changes. Therefore, translation machines sometimes find it difficult to keep up with the current linguistic trends that appear and disappear. This, in turn, often results in incongruities between key phrases and expectations of users. The Polish word “antyszczepionkowcy” (meaning roughly anti-vaccination activists) is a perfect example - despite of being present in public discourse for months, it’s still not recognized by translation machines, including even the most popular Google translator. Moreover, the word “anti vaxxers” which means basically the same as the Polish phrase exists in English. Unfortunately, even the most frequent updates won’t solve the issue - human speech and writing will always be a little bit ahead of the technology.

To conclude

As you can see from the examples outlined in this article, translating keywords is too complicated to be entrusted to any translation machine, even if it’s updated very frequently. When selecting your foreign keywords, it’s much more important to get to know users in a given country than to translate phrases literally. After all, the users’ search queries are supposed to set the path that will enable SEO specialists to achieve the best possible results. Instead of sticking blindly to dictionaries, try to find some hints by visiting similar shops and websites concerning the same industry or simply by observing the phrases that are most frequently searched for by the users. However, it doesn’t mean that you have to forget about dictionary definitions once and for all - they are a good basis for finding keywords, although you shouldn’t rely on them unconditionally.


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