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Language barrier? Don't make this mistake.

When you need to talk to someone who doesn't speak your language, having access to a translation tool or someone who can interpret can be incredibly helpful. However, choosing the wrong option can lead to a conversation that's not much better than having no help.

Have you ever tried using a translator app like Google Translate but gave up because it made too many mistakes or the conversation flow was too clunky? Or have you ever asked a bilingual person to interpret something important only to get the feeling that critical details were getting missed? If so, you may have used the wrong translation method for the conversation. (We'll talk about the options later.) Fortunately, selecting the best option is straightforward, and if you keep a few things in mind, knowing which one to use will be second nature.


Risk vs. Complexity

The first step is to consider what's on the line. When communicating between different languages, there's always a risk of misunderstanding. Let's call this Interaction Risk. The consequences of such misunderstandings can range from a minor inconvenience, such as receiving the wrong-sized towels in a hotel room, to severe consequences, such as an incorrect medical diagnosis. Knowing what's at stake is the first half of knowing which translation option to use.

The other half is knowing how complex the expressed ideas are. We'll call this Conversational Complexity. For example, asking for more bath towels is much simpler than explaining the nuances of one's symptoms.

When you consider Interaction Risk and Conversational Complexity together, you'll know the relative skill level needed to interpret your conversation. For illustration, look at the diagram below, which shows hypothetical conversation settings and how they compare. Note that the values of the points are arbitrary and not meant for comparison.


Conversation scenarios

Picking the best translation option

To translate these conversations, we have options that fall into three categories.

  • Basic - Machine translation apps (ex. Google Translate)
  • Casual - A bilingual bystander (either someone you know or a kind stranger)
  • Advanced - A professional interpreter

Generally, machine translation apps are free and ideal for up to a sentence or two, but beyond that, they may be more hindrance than helpful. If you've ever used an app to translate a conversation, you know how cumbersome it can be, not to mention accuracy far from perfect. Bilingual bystanders are great for everyday conversations but are not always available when needed. And lastly, professional interpreters are widely available and essential when precision and accuracy are necessary, but they can be expensive.

Referring to our diagram above, we can use simple criteria to group our hypothetical conversations into the same categories. Specifically, basic conversations involve low Conversational Complexity AND low Interaction Risk. Advanced conversations involve either high Conversational Complexity OR high Interaction Risk, and casual conversations cover everything in between.

So for best results, use a machine translation app for basic conversations. For casual interactions, grab a bilingual bystander, and for advanced conversations, use a professional interpreter. 

Conversation scenarios grouped by translation methodWhy it matters

What happens if you pick the wrong translation option? If your situation calls for a bilingual bystander, but you think you need an interpreter, you could pay more than you need to by hiring one, or worse yet, you do without because the cost seems too expensive. On the other hand, if you need an interpreter and try to get by with a bilingual bystander or machine translation app, you could miss important details and risk the consequences of any mistakes.

Another aspect to consider is availability. Many free machine translation apps exist, and many professional interpreters are available via phone or their apps. But what about bilingual bystanders? What if you need help with a casual conversation, but none are available? We're working on a solution to make virtual bilingual bystanders as readily available on your phone as machine translation apps and professional interpreters are. Do you have a specific need? We'd love to hear about it.