More information is being shared worldwide than ever before as globalization expands, sparking greater demand for quality language translation services. We’re translating everything from training materials and how-to videos to storytelling podcasts, websites, business documents, white papers, briefs, instructional materials, product manuals, signage, and ads.
Poorly translated material is, at best, frustrating to read or listen to. It reflects sloppiness, lack of respect for the reader or audience and can lose credibility in the information and the source providing it. In some instances, translation mistakes may be insulting, shocking, and culturally inappropriate. Even a single word error can dramatically change the meaning of what’s being conveyed. For instance, if you’re traveling in Germany and present a gift to someone, accidentally using the word gift means you told them you’re presenting them with poison because gift means poison in German.
Don’t underestimate the nuances of language and the importance of accurate translation. Read on to learn about the most common translation mistakes and how to avoid them.
The 12 most common translation mistakes
Language translation is a creative process that requires more than merely replacing a source word with a corresponding translated word. Grammar, colloquialisms, syntax, regional dialects, and cultural subtleties require a depth of understanding and the expertise to ensure nothing gets misstated or lost in translation. The first step toward error-free translations is understanding the typical mistakes made.
Missing the intent behind a translation can have big implications. Although the translation might be technically correct, the nuance of intent can completely change the meaning of a sentence from one language to another, resulting in an awkward translation that doesn’t make sense. A classic example is when the brand name Coca-Cola was first translated phonetically into Chinese in the 1920s. The resulting phrase meant “bite the wax tadpole” in Chinese. Another example is when Pepsi mistranslated its slogan “Come Alive with the Pepsi Generation” into Taiwanese, becoming “Pepsi Brings Your Ancestors Back from the Dead.”
Punctuation marks play a critical role in translation. Periods, commas, colons, exclamation points, and other marks separate sentences and their elements and clarify meaning. Consider the difference between “Let’s eat, Dad” and “Let’s eat Dad.” Accent marks can also completely change a word’s meaning. For instance, in French, “pêcheur” means fisherman while “pécheur” translates to sinner. To compound the issue, punctuation isn’t used the same in all languages. For example, Greek uses a semicolon as a question mark.
Sentence structure variances from one language to another lead to substantial problems if the translator doesn’t know the appropriate structure and the arrangement of words and phrases in each language. For example, a sentence in English has a subject, verb, and object, whereas Farsi uses a subject, object, then verb sequence. Comparing English to Mandarin Chinese, English is typically subject-prominent, whereas Mandarin is topic-prominent. In the sentence “I’ve already done my chores,” the word “I” is the subject, and “chores” is the topic. So, in topic-prominent Mandarin, the sentence structure would be “Chores I’ve done already.”
The grammar of languages tends to be unique. Grammar errors include incorrect verb inflections that modify its tense, mood, aspect, voice, person, or number, as well as lack of agreement between subject and verb, among other things. Take possessive adjectives (my, your, his, her, its, our, their, and whose). In English, they agree with the gender of the possessor. In French, they are determined by the gender of the possessed object. So, “Sleep is her favorite pastime” translates into French as “Le sommeil est son passe-temps favori.” Son is masculine in this example because favori is a masculine singular adjective.
It might seem like numbers are numbers no matter who’s reading them, but their formats can vary from country to country, and the language surrounding them might affect their interpretation. Translators must pay close attention to symbol use, values, figures, statistics, and any translation of numerical information like currency, dates, times, drug doses, the metric system, etc. In the United States, numbers commas separate numbers into groups of three to make them easier to read, such as 100,000 representing one hundred thousand. In India, one hundred thousand is written as 1,00,000. Here’s another example. In English, 20.5 means thirteen point five (or thirteen and one half). In other countries, it can mean thirteen times five.
To further complicate things, numeric translation mistakes aren’t necessarily errors in written numbers. For instance, “milliard” in French is “billion” in English. You can see that erroneously translating “milliard” to “million” could have serious consequences.
If your translation project requires numerical literacy in two or more languages, search for top independent talent to meet your needs.
Word order varies in different languages. In English, adjectives come before the noun, such as blue bag. In other languages, they go after the noun. Blue bag in English translates to bag blue in other languages, including French and Spanish. Red earth, for instance, becomes terre rouge (earth red) when translated to French. Yet, there are exceptions to this that make word order challenging. For example, some French adjectives go before nouns, such as those that describe age. So, in English, “young girl” translates to “jeune fille” in French, which happens to be a literal translation.
Style or tone
Imagine how difficult translating a poem would be, and you’ll start to understand how complicated and nuanced it can be to nail the right tone. How material reads can ultimately be as important as what is being read. An entire article can be misinterpreted if the tone is off.
For instance, don’t translate a casual article using flowery, difficult, or authoritarian words. Consider a casual document speculating about weather trends translated with a formal, authoritative tone. This tone may lead the reader to believe a situation is dire. Even a single word choice can make a substantial difference. “Donc” in French would be translated to the word “so” in English instead of “therefore.” Notice the difference between telling a friend, “It looks like rain; therefore I’ll shut the windows,” compared to “It looks like rain, so I’ll shut the windows.” Using “therefore” seems awkward, doesn’t it?
Some languages are gender-neutral, while others have masculine and feminine nouns, including Russian, Arabic, Spanish, Hindi, and French. Polish nouns are masculine, feminine, or neutral. To make it more complex, gender can vary from language to language. The ball in Spanish, “la pelota,” is feminine. In French, it’s masculine, translating to “le ballon.”
Using common sayings, slogans, or catchy taglines might work in one language but fall flat in another, changing the intent, tone, and meaning of the translation. Your best bet is to have a native language speaker proof your materials to ensure your meaning carries over to the target language. Otherwise, you could end up in a situation similar to global bank HSBC. Their new tagline “Assume Nothing” became “Do Nothing” in several other countries following a rebrand.
Also, watch for slang words that simply don’t translate, such as bandwagon, used in English in reference to an activity or cause. So, when translating bandwagon to another language, a knowledgeable translator must translate the intent versus using a literal word substitution.
This is especially tricky since irony and sarcasm, even in your native language, are often misconstrued. When there are cultural differences, the possibility of this occurring increases. In fact, sarcasm is especially difficult to translate if it includes slang, colloquialisms, subtle wordplay, or cultural humor. To avoid mistakes, use translators who know the cultural, religious, social, and political differences surrounding the languages they are translating.
To highlight the difficulties with sarcasm, consider how often British sarcasm is lost on Americans in the United States, although a common language is spoken. The phrase “with the greatest respect” used by a Briton can mean “I think you’re an idiot,” but Americans may interpret it as meaning “I am listening to you.”
Compound words are two separate words joined together to create a new word, such as sunflower and railroad. You’ll often find similar compound words in different languages. Take Spanish and English, which share several compound words. “Windshield,” for instance, is “parabrisas” in Spanish, which means wind-stopper or windshield. Yet, certain compound words in English, such as butterfly, make no sense in Spanish. Flies aren’t made of butter, so the Spanish word for butterfly is mariposa.
Idioms and expressions
Idioms are expressions using a combination of words that take on a figurative meaning. They include “kick the bucket,” meaning to die, “piece of cake,” meaning easy, or “keep the wolf from the door,” referring to having enough money to afford essentials like food and clothing. Since many idioms can’t be directly translated, a qualified translator will know what’s culturally acceptable and understand the local language to create a workable substitute. For example, one might use a translated equivalent of “enough money to live on” in another language for its English source, “keep the wolf from the door.”
Examples of translation mistakes
As you can see, common errors can be easily made when translating from one language to another. Below we highlight a few of the typical mistakes in translating from English into French and Spanish.
Common mistakes in Spanish translation
- Proper use of prepositions can be challenging because English to Spanish prepositions don’t have one-to-one correspondence. A simple English preposition such as “in” might be translated not only as “en” but also to “de” (e.g., de la mañana for “in the morning”), which typically is translated as “of” or “from.”
- Homophones in English—words that sound the same but are different in meaning or spelling—don’t always apply in Spanish. For example, “cita” is used for a date, as in meeting someone. “Fecha” applies to the calendar date.
- Don’t be fooled by false cognates, i.e., Spanish words that look similar to English words but have a different meaning. For example, “asistir” means “to attend,” not “to assist.”
- More than people from the United States are considered Americans (“Americanos”). It’s anyone from North, South, and Central America.
- Remember that “dia” (day) is a masculine noun requiring masculine adjectives and articles. So, for example, use “buenos días,” not “buenas días” to say “good morning.”
- “Estar” denotes location, but when it comes to events, use “ser” to tell where an event is taking place.
- Avoid using the wrong word for time. “Hora” is time on a clock. When referring to an occasion, use “vez.” Otherwise, “tiempo” applies to most other instances.
Common mistakes in French translation
- False cognates are as problematic when translating from English to French as they are to Spanish.
- Pay attention to proper adjective placement. Most French adjectives go after the noun they describe, although some adjectives appear before the noun, such as beau, premier, bon, and grand.
- French tends to be a more formal language than English. For instance, “you” in English applies to anyone. In general, when translating to French, use “vous—the formal version—with anyone you don’t know, superiors, and elders. Use the informal “tu” with family, children, and friends.
- French has many dialects. Parisian French is different from French spoken in Marseilles, and French spoken in France varies from French spoken in Canada, Belgium, Africa, and other primarily French-speaking countries. Translators must be able to localize and understand region-specific variants.
- As with Spanish, homophones are troublesome when translating to French. For instance, “coin” in French translates to “corner” in English.
- The French have idioms just as English and most other languages, which have figurative versus literal translations. So, when the tone is casual, “to daydream” may be translated to “être dans la lune.” The literal translation is “to be in the moon.” Another example is the idiom “être connu comme le loup blanc,” which literally translates “to be known as the white wolf” but figuratively means to be well-known.
Examples of translation mistakes in advertising
Translation blunders occur in advertising around the world. We mentioned two made by Coca-Cola and Pepsi earlier. Many of them are hilarious, while others are troubling. For instance, Parker Pens’ ad saying “It would leak in your pocket and embarrass you” was translated to “It won’t leak in your pocket and make you pregnant” in Mexico. KFC’s slogan “Finger Licking Good” was translated to “Eat Your Fingers Off” in Chinese. Or, when Ford’s slogan “Every Car Has a High-Quality Body” was translated to “Every Car Has a High-Quality Corpse” in Belgium.
How to avoid translation mistakes
With the scope, complexity, and nuance of language, you may wonder if translation errors can be avoided. Fortunately, it’s possible when you use an experienced, professional translator and take additional appropriate precautions. Be prepared to go through more than one round of reviews and edits to ensure quality translations. And keep in mind that translation projects may require a team of professionals, such as translators, proofreaders, linguists, and subject matter experts. When translation projects are broad in scope, it’s wise to use translation project management.
Avoid errors in spelling, style, syntax, dialect, and grammar by proofreading. A good way to evaluate translated content for lost intention or awkward phrases is to have a native language speaker proof it. Allowing time in your project for a final proofing phase is a good idea regardless of translation, but when you’re pushing content out into the world in a language you don’t understand, it’s best to be certain it’s not missing the mark.
Ensure the source material is correct
The saying “garbage in, garbage out” applies to many things, including language translations. If your source material is riddled with typos, grammatical errors, or other mistakes and you don’t correct them, then the translated copy will end up being no better.
Don’t use machine translation
Machine translators have come a long way, but language translation still requires the human touch. Language is often localized and varies in style and tone, and interpretation of intent is cultural, contextual, and subjective, making machine translation tricky.
Hire professional translators
Using machine translators or someone bilingual but not trained or experienced in translation can impact sales and revenue and put your brand and your company’s reputation at risk. Professional translators will know the proper terminology to use, understand the meaning of the words in context, any localization required, and focus less on word-for-word translation. Search for skilled professional translators to help you complete your translation projects and avoid mistakes.
As you can see, language translations are intricately complex and multifaceted, and mistakes are easily made. Translations riddled with errors will be ineffective, misunderstood, embarrassing, and potentially insulting to your intended audience. Even little mistakes can make your brand and company appear lax and sloppy. Professional translators evaluate and revise each word, phrase, and sentence in context, understand the intent, are knowledgeable about local and regional variations, and are sensitive to cultural differences.
If you don’t have the available staff or staff with the appropriate expertise to perform translation, Ndiwano.com, the world’s work marketplace, enables you to hire independent translators with ease and confidence.