Translation Services at a Loss for Words

Text in SVG is text. Visually, you can use webfonts like WOFF or SVG Fonts (where they are supported, like in Opera or the iPhone) to make it look cool, and you can style both the stroke and fill to make it all fancy, or apply filters to pop it out or make it glow or give it a dropshadow, but it’s not just a raster image like many text headers… it’s human- and machine-readable text, as nature intended.

So, SVG is translatable, right?

I wanted to make that point in my talk yesterday at Web Directions East, here in Tokyo, so I thought I’d translate my slide on text in SVG
in real time (note: click the down arrow to step through the bullet points). But testing it beforehand (I’m glad I did some prep), neither Google nor Bing even try to translate it. Yahoo’s Babel Fish at least returns the original page, though it doesn’t take the extra little step of doing any actual translation.


Why don’t they translate it? Bing offers this helpful explanation:

What text formats are supported?
Html and Text. The viewer will not translate text on images, in PDFs, or in Flash graphics and animation. It may also not translate some dynamically generated text, such as in cascading menus.

I expected this to work, since Google now indexes SVG; as I mentioned in a previous blog post, I made a test page back in 2002 that sorta conflated the two services, indexing and translating. But obviously, these are two different tools, and need to be fixed separately.

It would be easy to fix, I’d expect… simply add SVG to the list of allowed file types, and translate the text content of each element, just as they do with HTML. If they actually special-case different element types, that would add slightly more work, but not a lot… just as with the task of indexing, you would pay attention to the content of the <text>, <tspan>, <textPath>, <title>, and <desc> elements.

It’s ironic that this doesn’t work, because on my way back from Lyon last week, I happened to meet Bert Esselink, the author of a book on localization who works for the translation company Lionbridge, and he and I chatted about how they use SVG extensively for their translation work.

In the end, I just had a native speaker translate a couple of text passages (the automatic translations were apparently not very good) and included them in my slide, just to serve as a placeholder. But I’m hopeful that soon I can demo the automatic translation live. It would be especially useful to people looking at SVG infographics, to be able to see charts and graphs in their native tongue.

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