Language Software Needs that Personal Touch

By Lisa Bertagnoli, Contributing Editor — Chain Leader, 4/1/2009

New technology helps, but the best language-translation software restaurant chains have found is a bilingual human brain.

When David Litchman has to translate a weekly employee e-mail update to Spanish from English, he uses Google’s translation application. The program gets the job done quickly, if not perfectly.

“Things are lost in translation, so to speak,” says Litchman, president of Pockets, a Chicago-based chain of 14 fast-casual sandwich restaurants. “Employees laugh at me when the translations don’t come through.”

Litchman says he will use another approach, the paid services of a bilingual employee, when he translates Pockets’ employee training manual into Spanish, a crucial move because about 70 of his 100 employees are native Spanish speakers.

“Translating programs are fine but not perfect,” Litchman says. “When it comes to an operations manual we will send to franchisees, I want to make sure it’s perfect.”

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Language experts say he is right to use a real brain, rather than a virtual one, to translate the manual. Even though translation software, which produces what linguists call “machine” translations, was first developed six decades ago, it still does not measure up to a human brain’s abilities.

Translation “is not a technology-driven thing,” says Donald DePalma, chief research officer at Common Sense Advisory, a Lowell, Mass.-based international research and consulting firm. “Human translation is, in every way, the way a chain should go.” Even translations done by a sophisticated program such as Language Weaver, developed at the University of Southern California, do not compare with translations generated by a bilingual person, says DePalma, who holds a doctorate in linguistics.

Online translation software, he says, will produce a “close enough” version for small communications, but 100 percent accuracy is desirable for material longer than a sentence or two. “Pay to have a company translate materials,” he recommends, adding that the cost is about 25 cents per word.

A Technological Assist

While relying on their own bilingual abilities, translators do get some help from technology.

At MultiLing, a Provo, Utah-based translation service, translators are professionals who translate from English into their native language, says Marketing Director Emmanuel Margetic.

A new project starts with a by-hand translation, conducted while the original document is fed into proprietary software. As the translator works, the software creates a translation memory base that catches repeated phrases and automatically translates them. The memory saves the translator the work of retranslating oft-used phrases and also ensures consistency throughout the document.

The database also lets revisions of documents—say, an updated employee manual—progress more quickly, as well as stay true to the original version.

Nevertheless, the translated document is checked multiple times for accuracy.

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Which Spanish?

Tampa, Fla.-based The Melting Pot hired Multi-Ling about a year and a half ago to translate its English training manual into Spanish, says Laura Lachapelle, the 140-unit fondue chain’s director of training and education.

“When I got here, everything was in English,” says Lachapelle. “The feedback from franchisees was that they needed Spanish, because a lot of the heart-of-the-house staff spoke Spanish.”

Lachapelle chose MultiLing based on pricing and the company’s ability to translate into several languages and produce videos in other languages.

After handing over the English version of the manual, the translators at MultiLing had a question for Lachapelle: Which Spanish? Spanish, like American English, boasts different dialects, from Castilian, which is spoken in Spain, to Puerto Rican and Cuban-modulated versions. MultiLing had to know which version would be appropriate for Melting Pot employees.

Lachapelle says the answer was “soap opera” Spanish, a version that American Hispanics would be likely to hear on Telemundo or another Spanish-language network.

The finished product, for which Lachapelle says the chain paid a “reasonable” sum, has helped employees who may speak English but be more comfortable with Spanish feel more at home at work.

“If someone’s not there to translate, they can read [materials] on their own,” she says. “They feel more part of the restaurant environment.”

Melting Pot’s next translation adventure will be in French to accommodate employees at planned restaurants in western Canada.

The Wrong Mushroom

Shakey’s, the Alhambra, Calif-based chain of 55 pizza restaurants, also used a service to translate some materials, including the employee handbook, to Spanish from English.

Human resources, which includes several bilingual employees, tried unsuccessfully to do the job itself: “The six of us got together and could not agree on verbiage,” says Becky Black, vice president of operations, franchise support and new store openings at Shakey’s. “One word can mean multiple things…we agreed that this was not the best use of our time.”

Black chose Los Angeles-based American Language Services to translate employee policy changes and other important documents for Shakey’s. Black lauds the company’s accuracy: “It’s very frustrating to have a communication go out and have team members pick it apart because it’s not accurate, “she says. She recalls “horror stories” from a previous job, including confusion that resulted over the use of the wrong Spanish word for “mushroom.”

Surprisingly enough, the company does not translate training materials into Spanish. Instead, Shakey’s uses Sed de Saber (Thirst for Knowledge), an in-English training program geared to making Spanish-speaking employees proficient in English. Since its launch in 2005, 88 Shakey’s employees have graduated from Sed de Saber, and several have been promoted to management, Black says.