Online translations have come a long way, but not far enough to send reliable holiday greetings without a little help from Santa’s linguistic elves. With the wrong translation, your holiday messages can quickly become a lump of coal.
Translate “happy holidays” from English to French using an automated machine language and you could get “bonnes vacances”, which means “have a great vacation.” Try it in Spanish, and it might segue into “Pasa buenas vacaciones”. This also means “enjoy your vacation”, and it speaks volumes about how little you know of the recipient’s language and culture.
Other common missteps include:
- Machine translations that use the wrong writing system. Chinese characters, for example, are different in Taiwan from the ones used in Mainland China.
- Assuming a country’s official language is the correct one to use in your greeting. Languages and dialects differ enormously from region to region in some countries, but machine translations don’t capture these variations.
- And the biggest mistake of all—translating your phrases verbatim. With machine translations, you’re very likely to get gibberish.
More than 50 percent of Internet users now rely on online translation services, but it’s important to understand their limitations.
Here are a few tips to ensure your holiday greetings won’t get lost in translation:
- Get feedback from a native speaker. Find someone who grew up speaking the language, not someone who learned it in school.
- Don’t assume everyone observes the same holidays at the same times you do. Chinese New Year isn’t celebrated on January 1st. Christmas and Hanukkah traditions can vary from country to country. Learn the difference before sending a greeting.
- Finally, if you’re sending a gift, be extra-careful to research holiday-giving protocols. Leather gifts, for example, are extremely offensive in India, and different parts of the world have unspoken limits on how much a giver should or shouldn’t spend. Understand and respect foreign customs.
Holiday greetings are a simple way to build relationships with colleagues and friends. But don’t let their simplicity catch you off guard. The wrong translation can lead to the wrong message about you.