I’m the point of contact for our company which means I get query letters in languages I don’t read. The latest was in German. Are there online tools to help me figure out what these companies seek?
The category of question you’re asking about is known as “machine translation” and it’s darn hard, though it’s come a long way in the last 10-20 years. We’re still a long, long way from the babel fish of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and we really can’t assume that everyone will speak English, as so often seems to be the case in other futuristic science fiction. In fact, it’s so hard that even a basic task of translating an English sentence into a foreign language and then translating it back can produce amusing and bizarre results.
There are also quite a number of translation tools online, but the one I’ll suggest you use for its simplicity is Google Translate. You can find it at translate.google.com and while it doesn’t do a great job, it’s better than staring blankly at an email from a potential customer or partner. What it can’t do is fix English grammar, so if you’re also getting letters in really poor English, well, you’re on your own with that one.
To test this, I had a German-speaking buddy supply me with a typical short business query. Here it is: Wir wuerden gerne mit ihnen Geschaefte machen. Wann kann unser Direktor ihr Buero besuchen?
Got it? Yeah, me neither. I can manage Spanish and a smidgen of Italian, but German leaves me in the dark.
Before I use Google Translate to figure out what it says, however, let’s do what I suggested earlier. I’m going to translate the English phrase “This cafe serves the best coffee in town and is also conveniently located” to German, then back. The German translation comes out as “dieses Café bietet den besten Kaffee in der Stadt und ist bequem zu befinden”. Now when I translate that back into English, we end up with the very same phrase. The problem is, that’s not how a German speaker would translate the phrase. They’d say “Dieses Cafe macht den besten Kaffee in der Stadt uns ist zentral gelegen.”
With that in mind, let’s take the sentence and question that was originally sent to us and see what Google Translate comes up with.
First, go to the site, you’ll see it has a very simple interface:
Easy enough: You enter what you want translated into the box on the left, pick the source and target language and “Translate”.
So, the letter says “We would like to do with them shops. When our director can visit their office?”
And therein lies the challenge of machine translation. Bing Translator actually did better: “We would like to do business with them. When can our Director to visit your Office?”
The original phrase was “We would like to do business with your firm, when can our director visit your office?” Which is close, except “your” became “their”, which can definitely throw things off. This is why if it’s critical, finding a native speaker or professional translator might just prove critical to success. Because “visit their office? whose office?” isn’t a good response, is it?