Video: Facebook’s Spanish Translation Misses the Mark (4:20)

I interviewed Maria and Aaron Contente, who are both native Spanish speakers from Mexico, educated, and are successful professionals in Silicon Valley. Maria Contente manages many of the relationships with our clients at Forrester in Silicon Valley and Aaron is an engineer at a large industrial company.

After enjoying a home cooked Mexican meal (and a spicy cocktail), I asked them for their honest feedback on Facebook’s recent Spanish release. Watch the video to find out that the new version reads awkward.

Apparently, Facebook outsourced some of the translations to the members, in a crowdsourcing effort of 1500 members, but in some cases there’s no substitute for having a professional translator. Apparently, a French version will soon be released, let’s hope the translation fares better than this Spanish one.

41 Replies to “Video: Facebook’s Spanish Translation Misses the Mark (4:20)”

  1. Hi Jeremiah!
    I’m a Spanish speaker from Spain and I do agree with María and Aaron. Even though you have to bare in hand that Spanish from Mexico is very different from the one spoke in Spain. Even though, the translation seems too artificial to me. Some words can’t be translated without sounding pretty lame. For example, the wall = muro. Even though it’s the correct translation, it’s feels just so stupid. In English there is like an implicit meaning of the wall where you put graffitis, in Spanish is just pretty weird to read that. Apart from that, some of my applications weren’t working in Spanish (for example the Twitter application), so I switched back to English.

  2. Hi there,

    Great Article!! (found it from twitter tho!)

    I’m spanish, I’m a reader and I’m work on the IT industry, so I think I can give you a hand here.

    I agree that Facebook’s translation was very poorly done for Spanish, and its not an aisle example of bad localization.

    First, we should distinguish between internationalization and Localization in this context.

    I think facebook did a good job in Internationalization, but we can’t say that for their localization efforts.

    I have helped translating some openSource applications into Spanish before, and the fact is that translating huge applications into a new language can make you really tired. Small variations of the same sentences and words appear throughout the infinite list of words.

    This kind of activities should be done by a well coordinated team, which sets a standard to translate words in a coherent, market-related and uniform way.

    One last remark, this issue have been way back in history -yeah, even before facebook- and there are already processes, organizations and standards to achieve this. See the famous Marketing Mis-translations as an example.

    Verdict: Guilty of negligence 🙂

  3. I disagree in a few points with Maria and Aaron. First of all, its a difficut job to translate so many “web 2.0” words that are being used nowdays… it just doesnt exist words to do exact translations. I can tell by experience because my blog is in spanish and i usually write about these subjects, plus i have the same dilemma everytime i want to tag a site in spanish in my… i endup using english everytime :S

    So, to be specific, “Media Social” wont be the right word to define “Social Media” … that would actually mean “social socks” in spanish. Its true that “herramienta social” doesnt exactly represent the real meaning, but at least it’s closer. Herramienta is not only a hammer… in the consulting world, “herramienta” is used -a lot- to help define an useful tool to help you achieve something. To prove my point just take a look at a google search on “media social” and you wont find not even one article in spanish. On another hand, do the same search on “herramienta social” and it cant be a coincidence that the first result is the wikipedia page for Social Network (close enough i would say).

    On another hand, spanish is the most diverse language… even in just one country you can have dozens of variations… each region has their own jargon… so I wouldnt agree either that the right translation should neccesarily come from Spain. If we’re looking for the perfect solution it should be implementing locale arguments to match the right language file according to your country… pretty much as most open source CMS work: es_AR (Spanish Argentina), es_BO (Spanish Bolivia), es_CL (Spanish Chile), es_ES (Spanish Spain) and so on…

    Facebook does indeed as awckard translation, such as: “Actualizaciones de estado”, (agree with the) “formacion y trabajo”, “Crea una Insignia de Perfil” and (this one is the best: a new verb was just born) “¡Facebookéame!”


  4. Hi Jeremiah,

    About me: I am also a native Spanish speaker who is originally from Honduras. I moved to the US to get a B.Sc. (1996) when I was 18 and then went to grad school in Canada and have lived here ever since. I speak both languages at home, 100% Spanish with my son, and 100% English with my husband.

    I don’t agree with Maria’s comments made regarding the use of the word “herramienta” it translates literally to the word “tool” and that’s what it is. I think the issue is that probably in Mexico it is used in a more industrial setting, but for the most part it simply means a tool which can be used in either context. Changing it to “medio social” changes the message to “social medium” which is still not social utility as Facebook originally wrote in English.

    There are however several of the feature descriptions in the next paragraph that don’t make any sense like “sube fotos”, which is their translation for upload images but really is read more like “lift images”. The translation for “tag your friends” which they used “etiqueta a tus amigos” is also quite poor and makes no sense to me. The word tag is literally translated to etiqueta, but in my opinion doesn’t flow as well to mean an internet tag. I actually couldn’t come up with a better word off the top of my head, and this is why my suggestion would be that Facebook get someone with perhaps a marketing background, who speaks both languages and who can convey messaging in both. I think Facebook has translated all the words of the site, but not the message. No need to review the entire site, but at the very least the homepage and some of the pod headers.

    I don’t agree with using Spanish from Spain, to me that would be like getting someone from the UK to translate Facebook in English. While the UK English might be the proper one, it only appeals to a small percentage of the users. There is a slang free version, of proper Spanish, which is used in most textbooks and leaves little room for interpretation. Same as English, when yuo read a good translation, you can’t tell where the person is from.

    Crowdsourcing in a language like Spanish works for sections in which the literal transalation is good enough, but not where the message is key.

    I’m sure you’ll get an opinion for every country in Latin America, so I’m looking forward to reading them all.

    Thanks to you and your friends for starting the conversation.


  5. Veronica truth is I didn’t mean to get FB translated into Spanish from Spain. I just wanted to note that Spanish differs A LOT from one country to another. Mexican Spanish has nothing to do with the one spoke in Argentina or in Spain.

    There should be different Spanish translations as you find in Firefox for example. There is an es_AR from Argentina and an es_ES from Spain. The same should apply here.

  6. Hi Alex,

    I agree about the different translations for different countries, Yahoo does the same. My comment about the Spanish from Spain was to Maria’s suggestion, not your own. And I completely agree with you and the term “muro” it’s awkward and a big part of the site which needs a catchy name like “wall”.

    I think it’s not a bad start, just not sure the translation offers any real value.


  7. Come on guys… “Formación” is a perfectly valid term, and much more encompassing than education, as it includes all those experiences that have helped mold your professional self. It’s used throughout the Spanish world in that precise context.

    “Herramienta” is not just a tool in the sense of a hammer (or anything else in a toolbox). And it’s certainly not a machete. Yes, perhaps “Social Medium” could be a better term, but we’re splitting hairs here between good and better.

    There are some typos throughout the website and some areas that have yet to be translated, but at first glance it looks pretty good. A one-off Spanish translation will never please every one: Spanish differs (sometimes a whole lot) from country to country.

    I’m sure translation services companies are not thrilled about Facebook’s use of their user base to translate the website, but that’s another story…

  8. I admire the spirit of Facebook’s “crowdsourcing” approach, but I also knew many Spanish speakers would be disappointed with its results. As someone who works for the world’s leading website translation company, I’m very familiar with the woes of regionalisms and the challenges of proper word choice.

    Translation is an invisible art: it only works when the reader doesn’t notice it — and professional translators are best-equipped to craft that. My company advocates “universal” translations that are free of regionalisms; this ensures that readers from many countries/regions can seamlessly understand the text and enjoy the experience.

    Jeremiah is correct here: there is no substitute for professional translations, particularly on such a high profile site as Facebook.

  9. THe problem with the computer related terms is that there is no common place for it. Its quite hard and sometimes, for me, require a traslation back to english to understand it. This made quite hard to have just one single spanish translation. Since the navigators have information about the Spanish country you want to have (for example i am Spain-spanish so it is es_es location) they should work on a multilingual spanish version. We have face this problem on teleducation sites and there is no way round it.

    Also i think that the crowsourcing approach its no good for a platform like this. They should spend some money on some profesional translators.

  10. I was raised bilingually in French and English and this problem will exist in the French version too. The difference between “amateur” and “pro” translation will be evident on all but the smallest products.

    Top of the top companies I’ve seen for this are Disney and McDonald’s. Having watched Disney animated features in French and English, they put a lot of effort into getting this right.

    McDonald’s “I’m loving it” campaign is also an excellent example of this. The French version uses “j’M” for the word “j’aime” which translates to “I like” OR “I love” (interesting language quirk). The capital M in the French version can be styled with the McLogo and there’s no comprehension lost here. The whole thing (“c’est ce que j’M”) would roughly translate to “it’s what I like/love”, which would sucks in English, but actually sounds good in French.

    Untrusted amateur translators won’t come up with this stuff. The “wall” will become “mur”, which is a French homonym for “ripe” and will all sound wrong.

  11. Gates, excellent examples. A proper translation of the website would involve reworking some areas and functions to adapt them to local cultures – as well as an in-depth knowledge of each one. (You’d be surprised at the Spanish translations littered around Miami – horrible stuff).

    But I’m not sure that’s what Facebook was after with their Translation Application.

  12. Jeremiah, thank you for your post and your comment on my blog.

    We professional translators urgently need independent professionals like you to assess the merits of this kind of exercise.

    I agree with Gates about McDonald’s, but not with the ‘mur’ comment; ‘ripe’ is ‘mûr'(with an accent), ‘wall’ is ‘mur’ (without an accent), but in France, it’s forbidden to write on walls… ;))

    An innocent function like the Wall could thus take us very far, and that’s only the beginning. The English language lends itself to the creation of powerful slogans and concepts out of very simple language, but you really have to apply your brains to find equally-powerful phrases in foreign languages.

    I’ll stop here…

  13. Hello Everyone,

    I am Maria Contente, the lady that Jeremiah interviewed.
    Thanks all for you comments, I appreciate and respect everyone™s different opinions. The beautiful thing is that at the end of the day, we all agree that Facebook should or should have spent more money, time and energy on some professional translators especially with Facebook being such a high profile site.

    Having lived in Mexico for 19 yrs, I just get upset when I see large corporations trying to market their products to the Hispanic population in such poor manner. If
    Hispanics help the economy so much and are so important that large corporations target us and spend the time to translate to Spanish, companies should take the time to build, allocate and recruit the right people to do this.

    Buena Suerte!

  14. Maria (Aaron)

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts with the community, and following up here in the comments.

    It’s important we have a global view on the web, business, and life, and you’ve really helped to enrich my blog, the readers, and the community.

    Please swing by anytime again to chime in.

  15. my first impression of Facebook’s spanish translation is that it sounds like a literal translation from english

    most of the translation seems to be correct, but forced, in a way a natural spanish speaker wouldn’t write about 13 hours ago from im in reply to jowyang Icon_star_empty Icon_trash

    also hard to use in spanish if some parts are translated, but most apps are not about

    Facebook should provide a translation platform for their app developers so apps can be translated too

    that’s the only reasonable way to take it global for real, can’t even think of translating it into chinese as it is now

  16. As they say, you only get what you pay for 🙂 Can’t Facebook afford professional translators or don’t they take non-English speakers seriously enough to think they should spend some money on them?

    “1500” is indeed an impressive number, but of course one should not mistake quantity for quality!

  17. Thanks very much for this insightful post; as a certified translator and member of the American Translators Association, the public’s lack of understanding about the value and role of professional translators is a constant frustration. Facebook’s effort to reach out to non-English speakers is admirable, but a sloppy translation, as a previous comment points out, makes it appear that Facebook is either unwilling to pay for professional translation services or unconcerned with the image that a poorly-done translation conveys.

  18. As a professional translator, I can only rejoice at the conclusions arrived at in this video. I totally agree with Maria and Aaron’s views.

    I personally prefer MySpace’s way of going global. TechCrunch seems to have opted for the “slowly but surely method” – they have a very good French version, a UK version, and a Japanese version (unfortunately I don’t know any Japanese).
    Surprisingly, some famous bloggers resort to Machine Translation without any postediting, which generally produces disastrous outcomes!

    BTW, is Web-strategist thinking of going global (at least partially, like a Spanish, Chinese, French, or German version…). I can assure you you have many fans outside of the US 🙂

  19. Yes, I agree that there is no real substitute for a professional translator, however that doesn’t mean that the way Facebook translates it is wrong. It should be common sense that “Media Social is the same as “Social Media”. Also, herramienta which they use for “tool” makes perfect sense, Facebook is a Social Tool that connects you to your friends on cyberspace. Facebook does not target one specific group to market. (If they did, it would probably be to the English speakers due to the fact that it is an English based company).

  20. I’m agreeing on the last comment (and one at the start :P) The terms “Herramienta Social” fits to what they are trying to say. I mean, maybe in Mexico its used in a more toolbox-way but not in the other countries. We use that word not only for services but software.
    Writing from Peru 😀

  21. Some excellent comments here, but I think a key point that’s missing from the conversation is the importance of Web 2.0 principles of “good enough” and iteration. I also speak several languages and have boycotted big brands who made mistakes with their accents.
    I have no inside info on Facebook’s strategy, but in general, the 1st iteration is usually “is it good enough to function for xx%” of users? If yes, release and refine, when you’ve set expectations that changes will happen without notice. They can bring in professional translators to refine. I also agree that it would be prudent to invest in professional translations of key concepts like “Wall” from inception. No matter how imperfect, Facebook is gaining much from this strategy: very low cost to enter/test the market and translator-evangelists who can help drive adoption; very community-based. If they follow the “good enough/iteration” strategy and observe good practices, they will bury MySpace which will necessarily expand more slowly and expensively and without evangelists.


  22. LinkedIn have just asked translators to work in exchange for a LinkedIn badge.

    A group was created against this by the professional translators on twitter (#linkedinfail – and they seem set to be heading in pretty much the same direction. It devalues our profession and once again gives people the impression that machine translation/bilingual-joe is a viable commercial alternative.

    I have linked to this post from within the group.

    Here’s the language survey:


  23. …funny that I ran into this that has been posted for such a long time, it was precisely one of my -localization- vendors that pointed me to this today, while we were discussing Facebook and MySpace attempts to localize their portals. He asked me if I had ever used the local versions and I said no, personally, simply because Facebook was/is developed in English and I want to get the best experience, I appreciate slang and funny terms, and know that not everything will translate well so I prefer English and getting everything firsthand.

    also, I’m posting my comment because:

    1. I’ve known the guy in the video for a long time, but haven’t seen him for a long time too and was surprised by his statements!
    2. I work for an IT-Silicon-Valley-based-recently-bought-by-Oracle company; I deal with lots of localization issues, one thing I do is manage online marketing strategy for LATAM, and it would be unacceptable to say the least to send out ‘Spanish from Spain’ emails to our customers in Latin America or to point them to the Spain sites, in any event we have to use Colombian Spanish as the “neutral version”, and not always; just to give you an idea, lets play with a phrase:

    – turn on your computer – English
    – prende la computadora – Spanish (Mexico and most of LATAM)
    – enciende el ordenador – Spanish (Spain)

    maybe Aaron even though mexican, says “ordenador” nowadays? not sure why he didn’t agree with Formacion then, being a very Spanish-from-Spain word, and pretty accurate I might add. Herramienta is a perfectly accepted term in the IT word within the region, as well as media social.

    Anyway, I never used the Spanish version so I can’t say for a fact if it was good or poor, I do not think FB didn’t have the budget to invest in professional localization, they probably did, but trying to come up with a single Spanish version for such a diverse community, probably not the best shot.

    Are they working on it still…?

  24. The machine tools use to translate have a limited capacity. The machine that can do it has not been invented yet. There is a vital need to break down the language barrier. For assurance of high quality translations, you need have the work done by professionals.

    Thank you for sharing!
    Legal Translation Solutions

  25. The machine tools use to translate have a limited capacity. The machine that can do it has not been invented yet. There is a vital need to break down the language barrier. For assurance of high quality translations, you need have the work done by professionals.

    Thank you for sharing!
    Legal Translation Solutions

  26. I don't understand why Facebook wasn't able to come up with a more organized translation effort. I mean, even if they did choose to utilize some bilingual members, why could they not have come up with some sort of simple cross referencing system where translated items were passed through more than one person (say three or more) for verification? I don't think that “professional” translators necessarily need to be used. It seems that a little teamwork could have resolved the problem.

  27. I was responding to a comment about Facebook translations. I found this while searching for a presentation that I saw from Facebook about a year ago in Taiwan. Facebook has continued to refine this process and it is now much more mature when this video was made. While my text below is closely related to this topic, I thought it would be a good contribution to add.

    There were no qualified translators for many of the Facebook terms, irrespective of the language. The Facebook approach is not just about translation, its about voting and full user engagement to define new terms in a language. Examples include “Friending” or “Poking” someone. By getting community involved, it because less of a translation issue and more of a localization issue with public consent. Add to that the speed that LSPs could do this and the level of accuracy (remembering most LSP resources are freelancers that a LSP would have put the job out to, many new, many unproven (some of course would be known and proven)) and management involved and the Facebook approach for this case delivers far better results, far faster and with a sense of involvement and ownership from the community that using an LSP only approach cannot deliver.

    The crowd sourced approach was far from perfect and most certainly had its flaws. As a result, if you look at their overall Facebook process, you will see that they did also engage LSPs and professional translators in many areas. Their early versions were crowd only, later they involved a combination of both.

    One other point that jumped out at me in the Facebook presentation was that the users were able to translate the site into languages that most companies would not consider. This meant further reach for the site, which in turn the users benefit from, with users contributing in part and Facebook contributing in part. This gave the community the opportunity to steer the direction of the services, instead of the company deciding based on commercial only realities. Companies that don't understand this important social trend will suffer greatly. Take the publishers of Harry Potter in China and Thailand. They thought they could double-dip on the market by releasing the English version first, then the local language version a little later. The market was not happy about this, so took things into their own hands. They bought 1 copy in English, scanned it and hand 400+ people translate 1 page each. 24 hours after the English version was released, the Chinese and Thai translations were available for all. While this is illegal, its a clear example of the market taking control to meet the demand when the commercial organizations fail to deliver to this demand. Facebook recognized this and managed the process.

    Many LSPs are not getting involved in crowd sourcing. When you think of the LSP model, there is roughly a 50 full time employee per 1000 free lancer ratio. While tested (one would hope) and managed and paid, this is already a level of professional crowd sourcing. Some LSPs and technology companies are even getting involved in software to support this better. Lionbridge, WeLocalize for example of the management side, or one step further with the The Lingotek Community Translation Platform and other similar technologies.

    In the words of the late Buckminster Fuller, “We are called to be architects of the future, not its victims. Don't fight forces, use them.”

  28. I teach translation classes at the university, and I show my students this clip when the start out learning about translation. Mainly, this is to show them the problems translators face when taking on projects. Also, I do this to show them that you always have to deal with people who think they’re experts, like these two. Much of what they’re claiming is inaccurate, something that has been borne out in the two years since this video came out. For example, the word “herramienta” as used here was a perfectly fine word and is a commonly accepted in this context.  Many of the terms to be translated were new concepts that needed new words, so you can’t really use the same norms when judging how the translation was done. Just because you speak a language, doesn’t mean you know how to translate a language.

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