Instagram's translation feature update, and how social media giants are translating your content in real time

06 October 2021

With about one billion active users on Instagram, it’s no wonder that the wildly popular social media app supports translation, and has been providing automatic translations on comments, captions and user bios since 2016. 

But up until recently, Instagram left ‘Stories’ out of their original text translation feature, so if you’d ever swiped right into a foreign language story, there was no way to bridge the communication gap and get that content in your native language. 

The good news is, that’s now changed! As of July 2021, Instagram announced the addition of a new text translation feature specifically developed to support the translation of text in story posts, and we couldn’t be more excited about it! 

So, how does this clever feature work? 

Well, imagine you open your app right now and you’re browsing stories. Suddenly, a story with Spanish text appears. According to your settings, Instagram will automatically detect this foreign language within the post, and an option in the top left of the screen will appear, available for users who want to read the content in their native language. An automatically generated text translation then appears at the bottom of the screen. 

In this article, we’re going to dip into the fascinating world of Instagram’s new translation feature and examine some of the positives and drawbacks of automated social media localization.  

A brief history of translation and social media

According to The Verge, Instagram’s recent feature update supports over 90 languages, but despite this impressive number, we’re wondering why it originally took Instagram 7 years to wake up to the language needs of international users. 

Twitter translation 

By comparison, as early as 2009, Twitter was crowdsourcing human translation. And by 2014, they had a network of over 350,000 volunteer translators (wow!) who worked to support 48 languages on the platform. But with 500 million tweets tweeted every day, human translators were never going to be a sustainable solution. So, after a short stint using Bing to translate, Twitter finally moved to Google Translate, and that’s the feature you see today if you choose to translate tweet text. 

Facebook translation

Facebook started automatically translating its users’ content back in 2011, and every day, Facebook automatically translates around 4.5 billion translations. And Facebook is where really exciting things are happening in the automatic translation space. As recently as 2020, New Scientist reported on Facebook’s development of an “AI capable of accurately translating between any pair of 100 languages without relying on first translating to English, as many existing systems do.” 

As far as we know, this system isn’t currently being used on Facebook, but no doubt they’ll be putting it to work soon. This type of artificial intelligence provides an exciting peek into the future of automatic translation, and you’ll hear it from us first when we have more information on this cutting edge language tech. 

LinkedIn translation

And what about our good friend, LinkedIn? Surprisingly, the latest to the translation party, LinkedIn only began supporting written posts with automatic translation back in 2018. Today, you can to “See Translation” on any post not in your default language, and this feature works in more than 60 languages. 

Back to the present day, and in 2021 we can happily report that all of the major social platforms now support the translation of text content. But the final frontier we have yet to see tackled is the support of voice translation. Could this be the next big feature to roll out on Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter? We hope so. 

If you’ve already read our blog post on video marketing then you’ll know that your customers expect and demand video, and in 2020 alone, 96% of customers increased their online video consumption. So, with video content top of mind for marketers and customers alike, we wonder how long it will be before social media giants like Instagram automatically subtitle foreign languages. 

YouTube translation

For now, YouTube wins for video translation. If you do use YouTube for your marketing, you’ll be pleased to know that currently, you can use automatic speech recognition to generate and translate captions in 103 languages. As far as accuracy is concerned, there are of course mixed results because the translation produced is only ever as good as the original sound quality of the video, and the type of language used. Typically, automatic translations tend to find slang, poetic language, colloquialisms, idioms and cultural phrases more difficult to accurately translate. 

But is the automatic translation feature reliable? 

If we had to highlight the biggest challenge social media platforms face when it comes to automatic translation, we’d say it all comes down to the unique way we communicate on social media.

The unique mix of memes, culture points, sarcasm, pop culture references and everything else we share means automatic translation capabilities are being pushed to their limits. When you use machine translation to translate a menu for a restaurant, the language is simple and designed for ease of understanding, but the same can’t be said for a funny post on Instagram, or a cultural happening shared on Facebook. 

While social media translation features manage to perfectly translate shorter phrases and sentences, they still struggle to translate complex, long pieces of content because people are unpredictably casual on social media, and our tone, delivery, emotion and style change daily. 

We’re still a long way off an elegant solution for universally accessible social media content, but with the volume of social media content being produced every single minute, automatic translation is a good place to start. 

Why Is Translation Important For Businesses On Social Media? 

By translating your social media posts, stories, tweets and videos you can reach multiple audiences with the same products and services, but with more strategic targeting in mind. 

For example, individual needs change with the seasons, and not all countries experience the same weather at the same time of the year. Changing your language can mean selling a winter coat to a UK market in December, and marketing the same coat to Russian customers in August. 

All you need to do is change the language you use, and adapt the content so it fits a context that speaks to your customers’ current needs and wants. 

Can automatic translation handle this type of localization? No. Not yet. But this is why automatic translation is only a small part of the translation work that global brands undertake online. 

For everything else you need, there’s e-Arabization. We help brands customize their messaging across multiple markets, and deliver social media campaigns across the globe. And if you’re in need of a little extra support with your marketing, then drop us a message and let us help you connect the dots and communicate with your ideal customer in their native language.