Translation Errors Can Cost Businesses Dearly

Pascale Chauvot

25 Mar 2014

On the side of a busy road in Swansea, Welsh lorry drivers were informed that, “I am not in the office at the moment.  Send any work to be translated”.  The English version was more helpful, stating that heavy goods vehicles were not permitted in the residential area.

This sign made news around Europe and was in the top 10 articles on the BBC website for several weeks, causing huge embarrassment to Swansea City Council.  As globalisation becomes more embedded in the mindset of businesses, the importance of language   use and translation becomes more apparent.  Getting translation right is not just a marketing and communications issue.  It has implications for the entire organisation.

Translation: An Undervalued Profession

We are often told that interpreters and translators will soon be replaced by machines.  This article from the Huffington Post firmly refutes that argument.  Machine translation is too inefficient – to translate a relatively short text you have to write two and half times more code than you need to simulate the flight of a missile.

The problem is that translation is more than just finding equivalents.  A good human translation can incorporate cultural elements and recreate references in culturally relevant ways that are beyond even the best software. (‘crisp as snow’ means little in your own language if snow is an abstract concept!).

Did you know that the simple three letter word “run” has 645 distinct meanings?  A machine translator chooses from the more common meanings – it cannot take account of the full cultural and textual context.  Software cannot interpret irony, or hyperbole which may work in one language and not in another.  Read more.

Getting the Right Translator

This article from bizcommunity.com picks up the theme, showing that Google Translate is still stuck with infantile literal translations.  The author, however, takes the next step and looks at what we should be looking for in a translator.

The article discusses tips for selecting your translation partner, and you may be surprised to learn that price comparison is one of the least important factors!

Translators should only translate into their mother tongue (and not from it).  Translation is an art, and in addition to formal qualifications (Master’s degree or professional equivalent) you should look for someone with creativity and a gift for expression.  When you are looking for a translator, ensure they have experience in your industry.  You wouldn’t hire a lawyer to do your marketing and in the same way an experienced legal translator may not be the best person to translate your marketing literature.

For important jobs you need to use an agency rather than a freelancer.  An agency can advise you on their review process to ensure that the end product sounds natural; can suggest alternatives; is robust enough to deal with larger work; and has the experience to give additional advice such as legal implications of a certain phrase.  An agency also gives you some contractual protection in terms of deadlines and price. Read more.

 Cheap Translation Costs Money

‘You are what you say’ – your reputation depends on effectively communicating your message to the world, and when you get it wrong, it is not easy to repair the damage.   Most of the examples we see online are humorous and concern poor translation into or from English.  This example from Thailand however shows how a lazy translation caused such offence that it was dealt with at an inter-governmental level.

By mistranslating several common Laos words the Channel 7 team awakened the emotions of Lao commentators, and revived the rivalry between the two countries.  The Lao ambassador to Bangkok was involved given the sensitivity of the issue.  Considering the high value placed on retaining and giving face, this easily avoided mistake ended up costing the dignity of the entire TV channel. Read more.

Getting it Right First Time

Ensure that you take account of culture and context to ensure that your message is communicated.  Remember you get what you pay for – so weigh up the cost of economising on the quality of the translator.  As a backup, you should ensure that you have language and cultural resources in house to ensure that the translation matches your corporate message.  The language that your company uses is the wrapping around a valuable product so make sure that it doesn’t detract (or distract) from what you are really trying to say by getting the translation wrong.

Translation Facts



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