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Feb 27

How to avoid common mistakes in translation

Poor translations undermine your credibility

Do not expect a machine translation to produce a translation that is clear and true to the original. You always need a native speaker of the target language to check the translation.  Machine translation can be a useful tool, especially when you want to translate from a foreign language to your own language. This will probably convey the overall meaning of the original, but you may lose some of the nuances.

Avoid common mistakes in translation

If a brass plaque on a castle wall is one end of the spectrum, a printed sign in the toilet of a café is close to the other end.

The three sentences in French are quite clear.

  • Please leave this place clean.
  • Don't thow anything in the toilet other than paper.
  • Thank you for your understanding.

The middle sentence is poorly translated, but the sense is still clear given the context.  You are reading this in the toilet.

The German translation is far worse and rather funny. The instruction about what not to throw in the toilet reads: don't throw anything in the toilet other than yourself!

The word order is jumbled and "thank you for your understanding" is repeated.

A simple example of a proper use of machine translation is to distinguish between two German words that sound similar:

  • Sauerstoff is the German for oxygen
  • Sauerkraut is the German for pickled cabbage.

How can you check your translation?

There is a simple way to check if your machine translation into a foreign language makes sense.  Use the same translation software to translate the translation back into English.  The result may surprise you. More complex texts need a more sophistaced translation.

Please note that I am giving general advice on translation and not reviewing any proprietary software. No matter how smart the software, you do need a native speaker to check the translation.  You may still need to use a professional translator.

Simon Fawkes Caricature

Aim to be different, not just better.

There are other tips in my blog post "Lessons in translation."

Feel free to share this post and pleaser remember that a good translation is important.

Do contact me if you have any questions or would like some general advice on translation. Please note that I am not a professional translator.

Simon Fawkes
Accredited Mindshop Facilitator
Business to Markets Ltd