We interviewed Lucy Pembayun, founder of LEaF Translations, about the fascinating intersection of SEO and translation. Translation is a huge component of international SEO strategies but, as Lucy explains, machine translation and even human translation won’t always leave you seeing the best organic results in your new markets.
Lucy joined us to articulate a translation process that takes into account both the communication of the text and its eventual organic performance, which will give you plenty to chew over if you’re on the verge of branching into a new market with your company or client.
As always, you can listen to the whole interview right here on this page or on any podcast player of your choice. Or, if you want to see a few key points, keep reading for highlights of the interview. You can also follow all of us on the podcast on Twitter, at @LucyPembayun, @EddJTW and @BenJGarry.
Ben: We’ll start by finding out a bit more about you. Where did LEaF come from and what is it that you do now?
Lucy: It all started back in around 2003 when I was doing a year abroad. I studied German at university and as part of that got an Erasmus year at a small town in Germany called Bamberg. When I was there I studied some translation modules and really enjoyed the process of translating.
After graduating, I kind of felt like my German wasn’t good enough to have a deree in it – which possibly tells you more about my own sort of perfectionism than about how good my German actually was! – but it prompted me to go back to Germany and study for a master’s degree.
I managed to get a scholarship and went to a really small town called Fulda in Germany and spent two years studying intercultural communication. Of the 30 of us on the course, 10 were German and the 20 were from all over the world. So it was interesting not only studying intercultural communication, but also living it on a day to day basis and getting an insight into how people from different cultures think differently and approach tasks differently.
After that, I did an internship at a translation agency in Germany and, being the only Brit at my university I got the job by default when they needed someone to translate their website into English. That was my first foray into working as a freelance translator and I absolutely loved it!
When I moved back to the UK in 2008 I worked as a freelance translator from that point for a long time. Then, when I had kids in 2012, it gave me time to think and take a step back. I had started to feel a bit like a hamster on a wheel, just churning out translations. I wanted to shift focus to quality rather than quantity, and I also felt that the translation industry was dominated by these massive agencies that all felt a bit corporate.
So I decided to create a translation company that had a focus on a more person service, and also an ethical business, which is something I’m passionate about. Now, coming up to where we are today, LEaF now offers dozens of different language combinations and specialises in things like Amazon listings, SEO translations and multilingual keyword research.
Basic translation terminology
Ben: Can you talk about the difference you see between terms like translation, SEO translation and localisation?
Lucy: Translation means adapting a text for a different language. It is always to do with the written word and not to be confused with interpretation, which is what they do in the European Parliament, for example, with the spoken word. The aim for a good translation is to create a text that sounds like it hasn’t been translated, essentially.
Literal translation vs transcreation
Translation itself ranges from literal – or word for word – translation to something called transcreation. On the one hand, literal translation is essentially what tools like Google Translate do. Also, when people who haven’t translated before who may speak another language try their hand at translation initially, it tends to be more of a literal translation where you translate word for word.
A simple sentence, for example, in German, like, ‘Ich habe eine Katze,’ is, ‘I have a cat.’ But then you come across idioms like the German Gänsehaut, which is used quite a lot and literally it means goose skin, which sounds quite disgusting but is actually the term they use for goosebumps. However, in a literal translation that term would just cause confusion.
The other extreme of translation is something called transcreation, which is a bit like a hybrid between translation and copywriting. This tends to be used more for advertising and marketing. Advertising slogans quite often use word plays and things so, as with Gänsehaut, you can’t translate them literally or they won’t work for your target audience. You have to play around with them to get the same ideas across, which is transcreation.
Localisation, on the other hand, is about adapting content for a different marketing. A good example of this would be a UK business selling baby products that wants to expand to the US market. There wouldn’t be any translation involved, but you would need to change quite a lot of the words within their content on the web. There would be obvious changes, like stroller for push chair, but also the tone of voice that they use.
Finally SEO translations incorporate SEO best practices, which includes keyword research and localisation. It also means translating things like title tags, meta descriptions, alt tags and includes other areas like Amazon listings and other web content.
How common is SEO for translations?
Edd: How common is it for SEO to be part of the initial conversation when it comes to translating content?
Lucy: Generally speaking, it’s very rare for SEO to be mentioned in the translation world. It’s massively behind in this sense. The remit for translation is normally very focused on the translation only without this kind of broader approach to it. As far as I’m concerned, that’s a big mistake.
SEO is really important. It’s as important to translated websites as it is for websites written in a single language. If you’re wanting to expand internationally and you put a lot of effort into translating your content but it doesn’t contain the right keywords, or hasn’t been optimised, it’s not going to rank and you’re not going to get a lot of traffic or conversions. It frustrates me a bit, but it’s a gap in the market that we’re hoping to fill by spreading the word that SEO is really important for translated websites.
Edd: When does SEO come into your thinking?
Lucy: When a client comes to us with a website translation offer we always bring up keyword research right at the beginning of the process because, in an ideal world, the keyword research will be done before any work is done on the translation.
The way we do that is to create a glossary of keywords. We usually start with the seed list of English keywords and localise those to make sure that they’re using the right keywords with the best search volume and the best chance of ranking. We’d then provide that glossary to the people translating the text to try and make sure that the keywords are used throughout the translation on the right pages.
Balancing SEO with other considerations in translation
Ben: How easy is it to balance all the different factors you need to consider, including capturing tone of voice and respecting cultural differences at the same time as trying to focus on SEO?
Lucy: For me, it’s actually quite a natural process. As a professional translator you’re always translating into your native language. For your own culture, you just do a lot of these things automatically without really thinking too much. The main difficulty is integrating the SEO aspect of it, which is when having the keyword glossary does really help with that because it means you know exactly which which keyword to use.
In that sense, it’s very similar to a copywriter who has a list of keywords that they need to incorporate into a blog post or into a landing page. Regarding so things like headers and titles, it’s a similar process that just requires practice and experience. And that’s, again, why SEO translators do differ slightly from non-SEO translators, because they have the knowledge and the awareness, and the expertise of how to actually put it all together so that you end up with a really high quality text that doesn’t look like it’s been thrown together. It’s about having the process all in place from the beginning, not as an afterthought.
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