Translation can be easy to take for granted these days, with the availability of mobile apps that promise to make communicating in a foreign country a cinch, and Google Translate on hand to automate translation in a click. However, it’s rarely that simple. Translation is an art that skilled translators work hard to acquire.
If you’re planning to translate content or localize your website, be wary of these 10 common mistakes before you get started.
1. Translating content verbatim from a source language to a target language
This is a surefire way to let blunders sneak into your translation. Even though words may be correctly translated, it’s important to know that different languages have different syntax, sentence structure, and subject-object agreement. The key is paying attention to syntactical nuances, the etymology of words, and phraseology between languages.
2. Failing to interpret intent behind language
Missing the intent behind a translation can have big implications. While the translation might be technically correct, the nuance of intent can completely change the meaning of a sentence from one language to another. In some cases, this mistake has escalated tensions between countries bringing them the brink of war, but more often than not it leads to an awkward translation that doesn’t make sense.
3. Assuming English (U.S.) to English (U.K.) is going to be mirror image
The differences may be subtle, but they’re important. For example, large online retailers often have copy departments dedicated to product descriptions just for their U.K. market. Even though you’re essentially speaking the same language, when it comes to reading, there are often spelling differences and phrases that would stand out as starkly American to a British person—words like “favorite/favourite,” and common descriptions like “to the reverse” instead of “at the back.” The devil is in the details, too—some common words (even words to describe parts of an item of clothing) in the U.S. can be offensive slang words across the pond.
4. Not having translated content proofed by a native language speaker
The easiest way to comb your 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.
5. Not creating a glossary or translation memory (TM) database as you go
Get the most bang for your buck by creating a glossary of translated terms as you go—something your translator can do in addition to their work. Have your translator write down terms that you often use, words that stood out, or phrases that were a bit more complicated to get right. That way, you’re making life easier for future translators, ensuring more consistency, and hopefully reducing room for error.
6. Translating text without paying attention to style or tone
Imagine how difficult translating a poem would be, and you’re starting to gather how complicated and nuanced nailing tone can be. You might be strictly speaking about the types of words your translator chooses. For example, a casual article shouldn’t be translated with a lot of flourishes, or overly difficult words, a common thing someone who wields a thesaurus too bravely might do. Or, you might be talking about the overall gist of a book or script. How it reads can ultimately be as important as what is being read.
This mistake isn’t limited to marketing content or literary works, either. An entire article can be misinterpreted if the tone is off. Say a casual document speculating about weather trends is translated with a very formal, authoritative tone. All of a sudden, the reader might take the situation to be much dire than it is, and assume a global storm is imminent.
Always mind the tone, and make sure you’re communicating your intent clearly with your translation specialist.
7. Assuming knowledge of the language automatically equals skilled translation
Consider this: Even professors who teach a foreign language for a living can make mistakes translating documents. Knowing how to speak two different languages doesn’t automatically qualify someone to translate between the two, contrary to what you might think. Translation is truly an art form and requires learned creativity and plenty of experience to do well.
For certain types of translations—highly technical content, medical and scientific translation, or other regulated industries—knowledge of a language is only half of the requirement. You’re also looking for someone skilled in that industry or field. For marketing translation, you might require more cultural knowledge to resonate with that audience—for example, knowing about religious holidays, political news, or pop culture.
8. Thinking languages never change or evolve
New words are added to the dictionary every year—and not just in the English language. Translators are professional students of the languages they learn, staying up to date on new words, trends, and evolutions of language.
9. Ignoring “untranslatable” words or native colloquial sayings
This is a common problem when using slang, common sayings, or catchy taglines. They might work in one language, but fall flat in another. Your best bet is to have a native language speaker proof it to make sure your meaning carries over to your target language. Or else, you might end up like HSBC bank whose rebranded tagline “Assume Nothing” becomes “Do Nothing” in another country.
10. Assuming numbers are just numbers, no matter the language
Pay close attention to figures, stats, and any translation of numerical information like currency, dates, times, drug doses, and the metric system (weights, distances, temperatures, etc.). 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.
These are all good points to remember. In point 4, though, I would distinguish between a native speaker and someone who speaks, and otherwise uses, a language as their primary working language, as the two may not be the same. And in addition to having a translation proofread, I would also add that the translation should be cross-read against the original (for many of the reasons listed).
Hi Lesley: Excellent point about distinguishing the two, and really great tip about cross-reading. Thanks for weighing in, appreciate your expertise!
It’s refreshing to see a technical writer write about translation. What Lesley Cameron comments on deserves a bit of expansion. A native speaker of a language is a poor designation for professional writing. It’s obvious that a person may speak his or her language idiomatically and correctly but still doesn’t mean that person can actually write texts properly in that language, because that’s a different set of skills, or writing competence.
What’s more, translators entrusted with your technical texts should not only be knowledgeable in your industry but knowledgeable in both languages, and possess writing competence. Many of the translation errors pointed out by the author are actually writing errors.