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Why Translation Mistakes Happen

7th March, 2014 I by Harry Hogue

Mistakes in translations, whether minor or more significant, represent a major concern for professional translators and interpreters. Not only do such mistakes damage the reputation of the profession as a whole, these mistakes also directly impact the effectiveness of legal counsel, medical treatment, marketing campaigns, and many other areas.

Translation mistakes are not limited to newcomers to the profession, however. Mistakes can occur as a simple oversight or because context was not provided by the client. On the other hand, sometimes these kinds of mistakes are a result of a failure to translate materials at all. The recent case of Deisy Garcia and her husband illustrates this point all too well. Obviously cases such as these are much more serious than cases of video game localization, but translation or a lack of translation always impacts audiences, regardless of the content or circumstances.

So what are some examples of famous translation mistakes? Please note these examples were taken from the Mental Floss website. We have indicated how professional language services could have prevented each type of translation or interpretation mistake.

  • Medical – The case of 18-year-old Willie Ramirez in 1980 who was believed to be suffering from food poisoning and the bilingual staff member who translated “intoxicado” as “intoxicated” led medical staff to treat him as if he were suffering from a deliberate drug overdose. This tragic mistake could have been avoided by using a professional interpreter who would have truly understood the meaning of the word in context.
  • Legal – The recent case of Deisy Garcia whose husband murdered her and her two small children could have been avoided if police had procedure for translating Spanish-only domestic violence complaints from Spanish into English.
  • Marketing – HSBC Bank had to launch an expensive rebranding campaign in 2009 after its catchphrase, “Assume Nothing” was incorrectly translated as “Do Nothing” in multiple countries. This type of mistake could have been avoided by using professional transcreators with specific knowledge and experience in country-specific marketing.
  • Gaming – Rising Dragon or Sheng Long? Without context, a translator inadvertently translated “Rising Dragon” as Sheng Long” in a Japanese video game, leading to much confusion, as a new character had not been introduced, but players had no idea who Sheng Long was. An understanding of the game’s context could have easily solved this misunderstanding, and illustrates the importance of being aware of a phrase’s context before beginning any translation.
  • Political – President Carter’s “abandoning” of the United States or his “lusts” for the United States were expressed through a Russian interpreter who knew Polish but was not used to interpreting professionally in the language. These comical errors could have been avoided by using a professional interpreter whose first language was Polish and who spoke English as a second language. This type of language work requires using the best qualified interpreter for the job, not the first available interpreter who happens to also speak one of the needed languages.

Have you seen similar translation mistakes? What do you think are the best ways to make sure these kinds of mistakes don’t happen in the future?

3 responses to “Why Translation Mistakes Happen”

  1. Hilton F Santos, Eng, MSc, PhD says:

    The best results may be achieved if the translation rate makes feasible to invite a final review by a colleague whose native language is the target language of the translation. As a Brazilian translator I am used to do this whenever possible when translating into English, mainly if the translation is meant to be published by some technical magazine abroad.

    • Alex Bauman says:

      The best results will be achieved if the translator is a native speaker of the target language and a specialist in the field (engineer, lawyer, doctor, etc.) As to the rates, they must not be lower than 0.05 $ per word, otherwise it’s an utter swinery.

  2. Denise Doty says:

    To reduce mistakes, which are inevitable, we are human after all, we should translate into our native tongue; take a break before proofreading our own work, then have someone else proofread it, preferably someone who is a native speaker of the source language.

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