Should you have a button on your website that says ‘translate’?

The short answer is no.

People who need them use their own translation tools. But, you can write the content in a way that those tools will translate well. 

Where we know we need one or two specific languages for a group, we should get a professional translation. An example of this is information for guests of the Homes for Ukraine scheme in Ukrainian and Russian.

This request comes up a lot 

Services rightly want their content to be accessible to users who are not fluent in English. Especially when they can see from their data that large numbers of the residents they serve need a translation.  

So, the request comes in: ‘can we have a button that says ‘translate’? We’ve seen them on other websites’. 

The question we’re asking then is, what’s the experience like for people when these ‘translation widgets’ are used? Does it help them get what they need? 

I put this question on a few Slack channels (shout out to the UK Government Digital, LocalGovDigital and the Crocstar Content Community channels), and got some words of wisdom on how to best tackle this. 

People use their own tools 

Our hunch is that people will use their own tools in their browser. In a recent user research workshop we ran, young people less fluent in English tended to do this on their phones.  

Camden Council have a ‘translate button’ on their site, but are removing it soon. In its place they’ll have guidance for users on how to use their browser to translate. They told us “many more people already use browser translation tools, and we hope to benefit citizens overall by helping them use these free tools across the web".

Liz Thomas from the UK Health Security Agency pointed to the risk of appearing to endorse an automated translation: 

If it isn't great then what's your liability? NHS people looked into the Google/automated translate element a while ago (spoiler - not great) 

How we can make content translate well 

Telling a service ‘people will just translate it themselves’ feels like a bit of a cop out. In an ideal world we’d get a professional translation and run trio writing sessions, but we’ll never have this for every single language we need to cater for. 

But the answer is not ‘just do nothing’. We can make sure we write content in a way that gives it the best chance of translating correctly. 

Folks on Slack had some interesting examples from services they’d worked on: 

Emma Cuthbert (DWP Digital):

Avoid phrases that can be translated literally.

I worked on a service where who were less fluent in English who thought that 'Home Office' (ie, the ministerial department) meant 'a home office' (ie, a spare room / garden office).

Vicky Teinaki (Student Loans Company): 

Negation can translate strangely. When I was at a different department, I think we used “non-UK goods” and it got misinterpreted. When we saw a pattern we ran the question through Google translate to another language and back and it showed how it corrupted. We then changed it to “goods from outside the UK” and it worked.

 Nia Campbell (Justice Digital): 

I'd add to be careful with phrasal verbs. Things like 'call off', 'look after', 'bring up'. I got that suggestion from Adrian Ortega at CDPS Wales.

Sometimes people understand the words separately, but aren't familiar with them as a phrase. I'm not sure how well they translate.

Simon Thompson (Freelance Content Designer): 

Establish how you can protect terms like project or people names (Facebook likes to translate a Swedish friend’s daughter’s name from Klara to Clear). Avoid colloquialisms, and that includes CEO statements. Pay particular attention to field names in tables. Use analytics to prioritise reviews.

Based on this, and the usual Plain English guidance, this is where I’ve got to in terms of guidance on writing content that translates well.  

To give the best experience for users less fluent in English, you can: 

  • keep sentences as short as possible - this gives a better chance of accurate translation 
  • avoid acronyms, or at least spell them out if you need to include 
  • avoid metaphors and other types of figurative speech, as these could confuse when translated - for example, instead of ‘reach out to’ you could say ‘contact’ or ‘speak to’ 
  • avoid phrases that may be translated literally - for example, ‘Home Office’ could be misunderstood as an office in someone’s home rather than a government department 
  • establish how you can protect terms like project or people names - for example the Swedish name Klara could be mistakenly translated to the word ‘clear’
  • avoid negatives, they translate strangely - for example, instead of ‘non-UK goods’ use ‘goods from outside the UK’ 
  • be careful with phrasal verbs like ‘call off’, ‘look after’, ‘bring up’ - even if people understand the words separately, these could cause confusion

Do you agree with this list? Is anything missing? Comment below 😊 

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  1. Comment by Martin posted on

    Google Translate is notoriously inaccurate, a group of French school students were expelled for trying to use it for English exams. Other tools such as DeepL are significantly better, as they adjust the translation provided to suit the context of the use of the words, and this can work quite well, but never as well as a professional human translation.

  2. Comment by david posted on

    lovely post - we get asked a lot about this and always say its not needed.

    • Replies to david>

      Comment by James posted on

      thanks David! Open to being wrong if there's a use case for them, but this is where we've got to at the moment

  3. Comment by Alex posted on

    This is a great post. I get asked this all the time, and have always struggled to give a good justification to why we don't need a translate button. Definitely bookmarking this one!

  4. Comment by Sarah posted on

    Some good advice here! Intrigued how Camden will have guidance on how to translate using tools. Surely to understand this, you'd need to translate the information about using translation tools! Regardless, all for not having a translate button.

    • Replies to Sarah>

      Comment by James Green posted on

      Thanks Sarah! For Camden, I think these were early thoughts around things they could explore instead of the existing overlay.

      Looking at their lovely new website (which launched after this blog post was published), they haven't included information about translation tools, perhaps for the reason you've described!


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