Translators, Likes and Facebook

In September it was rumoured that Facebook was going to make changes to the ubiquitous Like button. Come February, what we thought might be a drop in the ocean turned out to be something much bigger. Mark Zuckerberg made waves when he announced the decision to expand on the Like button with six additional buttons!

In the social media world, it was an important decision with potentially massive ramifications for future trends. Other platforms might expand on and develop their own buttons. After all, Facebook is a bit of a trendsetter in the industry. If the new buttons prove popular among Facebook users, it might only be a matter of time before other platforms begin to incorporate their own emoticons into their services.

Although the announcement has had a rippling effect on social media, it has also been significant in the world of translation and localization. Maybe it was part of the plan, but by substituting the word “like” for an image-based button Mark Zuckerberg has just saved thousands of translators across the world a headache or two. If you are not a translator and reading this, you might be wondering how? Let us explain how…

Many languages across the world are highly inflectional, which means their words have many different endings depending on the meaning and function in the sentence. A verb, such as write, draft or send could have one of many endings depending on whether it:

  1. Refers to a man, woman or thing
  2. Involves one person or many
  3. Is in the past, present or future
  4. Performs a function, such as a request, command or interrogation

There are other features that might have to be taken into consideration, such as voice – the concept of whether a verb represents an active person in the sentence or a passive one.  However, in general it is safe to say that a verb could potentially have many endings. Finnish is a good example – check out these three verb tables, showing a wealth of suffixes and prefixes which have to be added to any given verb

As you can see, by putting a verb into a sentence, there are many linguistic factors to take into consideration.  So, what about the word Like? Well, in English it is easy: you don’t need to add anything to the beginning or the end of the word, you just use it as it stands. This means in English you can easily write sentences on your website such as Why not like us on Facebook! The word “like” doesn’t have to change. However, try to do that in almost any other language, and you run into difficulties.

Choosing the best form of the verb in languages such as Polish, Finnish and Japanese is a much more difficult task for the translator. They have to take into consideration things such as verb endings, cultural norms and politeness. Should the verb be in a command form, with a polite request next to it, or an infinitive?

Difficult questions with no easy answers. Except now there is an easy answer – don’t translate it! Thanks to this decision, these words no longer need to be translated. The image says everything. So a translator can now use the word like in an appropriate form and not worry about how it corresponds with Facebook’s official translation.

This is Facebook’s first step in moving beyond words and opting for universal images. What will be the next step in this process and who will follow suit?


Anthony Ash

A lover of language, Anthony speaks several and is particularly interested in historical linguistics. With an MA in Linguistics and a Postgraduate Diploma in Education, he is our Chief Language Expert and Director of Training.

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