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:
Here is a message description example for “I’m Feeling Lucky,” a string you see on Google’s home page.
Here’s one for “Images” on the Google Search home page.
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.
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.