Heated root vegetables. Or hot potatoes?

Google robots were born on Mars. To Martians, clichés are as confusing as a fish on a bicycle. Alas, the vagaries of the English language exacerbate confusion.

Clichés may bore readers but do they, I wonder, befuddle robots? “Games consoles fly off shelves like hot potatoes!” could be translated by a robot as “Sympathetic games levitate from racking system as heated root vegetables.”

(To make matters worse, the potato belongs to a group called “tubers”; not true root vegetables. But I digress.)

Hopefully, those clever geeks at Google have predicted such a sentence of mine. And forewarned robots of the need to translate less literally. But what if we are taken all too literally? (By both human, and non-human readers.) This may be problematic if you are hoping for orders from overseas and only offer product descriptions in English.

Are we all too poetic with product descriptions? Cashmere sweaters, “lovingly hand-washed in the spring waters of the Scottish Borders” may leave customers in Tokyo scratching their heads. To shoppers in Cobham, or on Martha’s Vineyard, the copy might seem charmingly romantic and lead to a purchase. (In which case, you can take a stylistic gamble with your copywriting.)

Tragically, I am unable to write idiomatic Japanese. But I know a woman who can. And I would always ask her to translate any spring water hand-washing, rather than entrust my web content to a business translation service. This is because it is crucial to employ mother-tongue translators to cope with the idioms of other languages. (If you question this, think of the literal translations made by Mediterranean hoteliers of their own establishments.)

Back to the issue of stylistic gambling however. Can we, dare we, write as we feel rather than write as expected? I believe so. And, as a reader and shopper, I would always be inclined towards a garment loving hand-washed by Scottish weavers over and above a “sweater made in Scotland.” Of course the price of cashmere may be hotter than any potato. Alas.

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