No substitute for professional translation!

Thanks to one of our readers for pointing out this news story about York council coming under fire for relying on online machine translation.

There’s a couple of funny examples but there is also an underlying serious point. If you want to communicate details and nuances of your services in a foreign language, the often rough and ready translation provided free online might not be good enough or, even worse, can make you a laughing stock.

There really is no substitute for professional translation services provided by a human being!

Italian translation that plays with fire

Most products go through an extensive series of developmental steps before they get anywhere near our shelves. The design is tweaked this way and that, colours and their implications considered, the look and feel is refined.

Yet all too often, translation is entrusted to someone who speaks the language “quite well”, or even “knows a bit of French”. Of all places, this truism jumped out at me once again while browsing for a pasta sauce. An elegantly designed box had the following English translation of the Italian cooking instruction:

To be charitable, perhaps this is a deliberately quaint piece of English, calculated to conjure stereotyped images of an Italian chef. It certainly makes a native English speaker stumble half way through the sentence, something that a quick (and inexpensive) professional Italian to English translation would have solved.

Either way, the sauce was delicious (tomato with bacon and speck in case you’re wondering).

Think carefully before entrusting your hard work to a home-brew translation or, if you’ll excuse the pun, you may find yourself jumping out of the frying pan and into the (bubbly) fire!

Clinton’s Russian translation presses the wrong button

Sometimes it really is worth being confident in your translation. Say, for instance, you are major world statesperson meeting your Russian counterpart in front of the world’s press. If you decide to give them a “reset button” to symbolise your commitment to starting afresh, you really want the Russian text to say something along those lines.

How Hilary Clinton must wish her advisors had taken that on board before they got her to present Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov with a big red button labelled with the Russian word “peregruzka”, meaning overcharged rather than reset.

Jokes and puns are notoriously difficult to translate into a foreign language. There is no guarantee that a clever play on words in English will work at all if translated literally. Even if the Clinton team had used the word they later claimed they were aiming for (“perezagruzka”), the joke would have been clumsy in Russian.

The other aspect that seems to have escaped those charged with making this button is that Russian is written in the Cyrillic alphabet. Of course, it is possible to transliterate Russian words using Roman script. But if you are making a good will gift for a foreign government, it would seem de rigueur to use their alphabet. We certainly would have been happy to provide Obama’s administration with a Russian typesetting service!

Having not had the help of a professional Russian translator, Clinton got herself into even deeper water when the mistake was pointed out. Lavrov pointed out (in fluent English), “This says ‘peregruzka’ which means overcharged” leading Clinton to joke in reply, “We won’t let you do that to us, I promise.” Err, no, Secretary of State, the word means overcharged in an electrical sense, not in the sense of charging too much money.

All of which goes to show, if you want to convey an important message in another language, check the wording with a native speaker or even better, engage the services of a professional translator who combines that linguistic knowledge with writing skills. Otherwise you might end up the butt of the joke.

Welsh translation is out of the office

Another day, another story of the dangers of non-expert translation. Officials at a Welsh council needed a road sign translated from English to Welsh, and unsuspectingly used the Welsh response to their email request.

Unfortunately for them, and to the hilarity of local Welsh speakers, the response was actually an automated “out of office” response.

As Dylan Iorwerth of Welsh-language magazine Golwg commented, “When they’re proofing signs, they should really use someone who speaks Welsh”.

We couldn’t agree more!

Why you need a professional translator

Language is universal. Or so they say. In fact, sometimes language can feel anything but consistent. When it comes to translating for business, it pays to have a professional translator.

Some businesses would do well to note this. Even brand names are not exempt from the need to research thoroughly before breaking into a new market. For example, the Chinese translation of Coca Cola was initially printed as ‘Ke-kou-ke-la’, on account that it sounded similar to the original (this is known as transliteration). It transpired that ‘Ke-kou-ke-la’ actually meant either ‘bite the wax tadpole’ or ‘female horse stuffed with wax’, depending on the dialect.

Many versions of this cautionary tale abound on the internet. It was the result of a competition gone horribly wrong according to Chinese Wikipedia, with even Coca Cola’s own historian conceding there were issues with these early Chinese translations. After a more careful translation process, considering the meaning as well as the sounds of words, Coke came up with “Ko-kou-ko-le”, which translates, somewhat more appropriately, as “happiness in the mouth”.

One typical downfall for businesses attempting to span the international markets is flagged up in the Institute of Translation and Interpreting guide to successful translation [PDF]:

“Avoid culture-bound clichés. References to your national sport may well fall flat. Ditto literary/cultural metaphors. Tread carefully with references to parts of the human body, viewed differently by different cultures.”

This warning could have saved then-Prime Minister Tony Blair from an embarrassing cultural translation blunder in 1998, when he told a group of Japanese business men that the British Government intended to go “the full Monty” in terms of strengthening the UK economy. This cultural reference was met with blank faces: the film had not yet been released in Japan. Furthermore, the notion of the British Prime Minister stripping off to cheesy music is an image that would probably not rest easily with the hosts’ cultural sensitivities…

The problem with translation is that the term is all too often taken to mean literally translating word for word into the desired language – in reality some things will always be, in a somewhat cliché truth, “lost in translation”. It is only through professional translation that you can ensure that this loss is kept to a minimum. Professional translators keep up to date with terminology, jargon and colloquialisms across a variety of subjects.

What’s more, translation is a skill. It is not enough to be bilingual, just as speaking English doesn’t automatically make you a great copywriter (myself being an exception to the rule of course!). A good professional translation needs to be written gracefully and capture the real meaning of the source text.