Words about words matter too
Pedantic descriptions of language are crucial for quality translations
When a string needs to be translated for localization, a translator will often be presented with nothing more than the string itself. No context, no explanation. The linguist can’t see the string in the UI, might not know what certain words are referencing, or might not even be familiar with some phrases or terms. This is where message descriptions come in. A message description is a description of the string that contains all of the context a linguist would need to provide a quality translation. Good message descriptions lead to good translations. I specialized in writing message descriptions for Google strings.
To write effective message descriptions, I had to be able to identify the nuances of language and recognize when they could cause problems in translations. Picking apart a string – even a single-word string – with this kind of precision requires careful attention to detail, knowledge of linguistics, and empathy for the user as well as the translator.
Every message description should include:
Parts of speech – for example, what adjectives are modifying which nouns
UI element and location
Point in user journey - where the user came from to get here and where we want them to go from here
Related strings in the UI (for example, if this is a button, state what the header above it says along with the button beside it)
The tone of voice
The name of the government regulation if the string is required for specific compliance
Some red flags that require attention include:
Ambiguity – squash it
Jargon – don’t assume a translator will understand it
Colloqiaulisms – if they need to be there, they need to be explained
Gerunds – nouns formed from verbs with an -ing ending are commonly difficult to translate
Standalone adjectives - specify what noun it refers to so that translators in gendered languages can ensure gendered agreement
Here is a message description example for “I’m Feeling Lucky,” a string you see on Google’s home page.
This string indicates that a user can select this option for an unpredictable search result rather than search something specifically. It appears on a button in Search that the user sees when on Google’s home page. It means that the user would like to do a random search in the hopes that they will be shown results that they find interesting. When the user hovers over this button, it automatically rolls through other strings that include “I’m Feeling Funny,” “I’m Feeling Curious,” “I’m Feeling Artistic,” and so on and stops as if by chance. The user can choose to click on whichever phrase the rolling button stops on by clicking the button, or remove their cursor from the button and return to hover for another result. The tone should be playful. (CHAR LIMIT = 20)
Here’s one for “Images” on the Google Search home page.
This string indicates that a user can click this link to search Google using images instead of text. It appears on the top right menu in Search that the user sees when on Google’s home page. This plural noun means visual representations such as photos and illustrations. (CHAR LIMIT = 10)
I worked on rewriting message descriptions for strings found to commonly have translation errors. The following are some findings that I pulled from that project that show how crucial a good message description is to a quality translation.
One of these strings was “Elopement photographer,” found on a clickable chip when a user is searching for specific services. Without context about what we use “elopement” to refer to, it could be translated as varying things. In Italian, it’s “fuga d'amore,” or “love escape.” In German, “elopement” translates as “Entführung,” or “kidnapping.” So, the clear definition in the following message description is crucial to the accurate translation of “Elopement photographer”:
This string is the name of a type of service offered by a local professional. It appears on a clickable chip that a user can select when searching for a business that can perform jobs in the category of wedding photography, particularly photography for elopement. “Elopement” refers to a wedding conducted in a sudden and secretive way. Please keep the translation as concise as possible.
Some strings won’t work as word-for-word translations because they include proper nouns or noun phrases that may not have the same meaning when broken down by word. An example of a string that includes a potentially confusing proper noun is “Mesa Branca spiritual center,” another example of a service type. Translating “white table spiritual center” wouldn’t make any sense. My message description for this included:
Do not translate "Mesa Branca," as it would lose its meaning as a proper noun. "Mesa Branca" is Portuguese for "white table" and refers to an altar used in sessions where people attempt to communicate with spirits. The term "Mesa Branca" is in title case and used to denote a subset of Espiritismo that performs these rituals.
“Compact stones” is a good example of a string with a noun phrase that can easily be mistranslated without a clear definition. Just translating “compact” separately from “stone” for the noun phrase could result in “small” or “dense,” and the translator needs information about what “compact stones” are. I included this in the message description to clarify:
“Compact stone” is a noun phrase referring to a composite material made of crushed stone bound together with an adhesive. Please do not translate the adjective “composite” as “small” or “dense”; in some cases, it may be more accurately translated as “composite.”
Sometimes, poor message descriptions contain a lot of information, but the organization of the information is potentially confusing. A well-structured message description isn’t necessarily more informative, but is easier to understand and therefore more likely to be useful.
The goal of writing message descriptions is to make it possible for Google users who speak any of hundreds of different languages around the world to have an experience that’s just as good as the one had by those who speak the language the original string was written in. Not to mention, errors can be downright embarrassing. In deciding what to include in message descriptions, many parts seem too obvious at first, but the complexity of language shouldn’t be underestimated.
Studies have shown that comprehensive and clear message descriptions drastically reduce context- and source-driven errors in translation.