The Greatest Mistake In Translation

Caution: bad translation — greatest mistake in translation
Caution: bad translation

Everyone has read or heard a story about mistakes in translation, humorous mistranslations or badly translated documents. Although what is the greatest and probably most lethal mistake in translation?

Strangely enough, the answer is quite simple. My experience from working in the industry for over 30 years has shown that the single biggest mistake in translation is being careless with short translation. As it sounds, short translation is the translation of a few words or a single sentence. Small or short translation projects are the ones with the highest rate of errors!

The reason behind it is simple: laziness and the pressure to meet a deadline. You have to put the same amount of work, perhaps even more, into small projects than you do with bigger ones.

To understand this, you need to think about the types of errors that can happen.

The Author-Designer Mistake

Most software developers, web designers and marketing managers are always under pressure to deliver on tight deadlines. It is fairly common that a last minute change to a document, file or brochure copy will mean a few words being added here and there — now you have a dilemma — you have to send this text to your professional translators. You might have to raise a purchase order or get approval to spend the extra money. You then have to get the text back from the translation agency, answer their questions and then put the text back in to your files. This process might take a day or so and it has to be shipped right away.

Isn’t that what Google Translate does? Why not type the short text into Google Translate, copy the translated text and insert it in the body itself? Surely translation isn’t that difficult? Big mistake!

Google Translate and other machine translation tools are just gist engines. This means that they are good at giving you a general or equivocal translation rather a precise one — they are not accurate — far from it actually.

Taking a translated word from a machine translation tool such as Google Translate is like picking a translated phrase in a language you don’t understand, applying it and hoping it is correct.< ?p>

Language Errors:

Languages are all very different and so are their structures. A number of words in Spanish have male and female versions — so you should know which word you are copying.

If you are working with Chinese or Arabic, you should not cut and paste text on an English language machine as it will corrupt the text if you have the wrong language fonts / keyboard installed on your machine.

Polish and German have different hyphenation rules than English. You cannot move the next word to a new line if it does not fit. Some words / phrases have to stay together such as compound words.

The Context Mistake

Finally, the big one is context errors. You cannot translate a single word unless you know the context of where and what the text is being used for. Especially what linguists refer to as homonyms.

Let’s look at the word press. What does it mean?

  • Press the button
  • Press as in a press beside your bed
  • Press as in a printing press
  • Press as in the written press i.e. newspapers, media et cetera

Google will never translate this word correctly unless it knows more information about the context. A professional translator will always ask the client what the text they are translating is for. There are lots of examples of this. Take the homonym arm, for instance…

  • Arm, a human arm
  • Arm, an ARM chip (Advanced RISC Machines)
  • Arm as a verb, to arm something like an alarm
  • Arm as a verb, to give someone a weapon

Need I continue? It is very easy to take a machine translation of a single word and apply it no matter what.

Where can we find this?

We find that these misused words appear on website menus and widgets. Often the major work is done on the Website and then after review with the client there might be a few minor changes undertaken.

Most website menus are coded in what are called widgets. These widgets normally only have a few words in them. So it is easy for someone to do exactly what we have outlined above.

Some may think: ‘there are only a few words to translate’. Why spend weeks with translators over just a few menu descriptions? Instead of spending the last three days working on the menu or straplines for it, just use a machine translation or ask a friend [who speaks that language natively] to do a quick and dirty translation of it.

At STAR, we will often check our customers’ websites a few weeks after we have translated them to make sure no extra strings were added after we completed the official translation: to ensure its quality.

The Funny Bit

I’ll leave you with this one. Strangely enough comedians and writers use this problem to great effect in sketches. Miscommunication and out of context understanding are the key to many jokes.

Having returned from Newcastle a friend of mine was asked, “Why did you fly to Newcastle?”* “Because it was too far to walk”, he replied.

*For the record, there are multiple answers to the question depending on the context and connotation implied.

For more information on why short and cheap translation can be very expensive, see the following links.

Article by Damian Scattergood, Managing Director of STAR Translation. Damian has over 30 years of experience in the translation and localization industry.

The STAR Team

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