3 Myths About Translation and Translators

Everyone has their own story of terrible translation to share — an otherworldly sounding warning sign in Russia to a hilarious menu in China. Human translators can be just as bad as machine translators.

Amid such uncertainty, it’s natural to ask if there are ways to prevent your business from becoming a butt of jokes the next time a technical document announcing your products in Japanese comes out.

Yes, there are. Hiring certified translators all the time isn’t one of them! Shocking? Stick with us, you’ll soon find out.

Myth 1: Professionals Are the Panacea

In April 2016 the City of Cartagena in Columbia began to install bilingual signs—English and Spanish—to assist tourists. More than 232,000 foreign tourists and 1.7 million national tourists visitors had come to the city in the previous year. The translation was performed by a certified English-Spanish translator and reviewed by the country’s Industry, Business, and Tourism Ministry.

Things looked good until the bilingual signs started appearing on April 20.

Once the signs were public they elicited more laughs from locals than gratitude from tourists.

As these images from the Colombian newspaper, El Universal, show the English text was riddled with mistakes.

The moral of the story is that you can’t just hire any professional be done with it.

Preventing a public relations disaster requires hunting down the right people for your job. The city’s mistake was to hire an English-Spanish translator when it needed a certified professional who could render Spanish text into correct, natural, and idiomatic English. A wrong decision.

Myth 2: Loyalty Doesn’t Pay Off

There are three primary reasons business replace their translators and translation agencies.

  1. The agency goes out of business.
  2. The translators can’t adapt to new work conditions.
  3. Someone offers to do the work for cheap.

While (1) and (2) are legitimate reasons to seek out a new supplier, the third reason is a bit tricky.

Your long-term translator is your business’ voice in another language. Replacing him/her with a new supplier may change how your brand in perceived. It’s a huge risk. You may save some money on translation but lose some of your most valuable clients.

A second reason not to switch agencies to save a little money is… mistakes. A new agency will take time to learn your business and during this period errors are more likely to happen. If you hire a new translator or agency for each project, the chances of a poor translation getting out increase exponentially.

It can lead to translation gaffes like the one that recently unfolded in Hong Kong when Apple released its iPhone 7. The translation agency was probably new or the translators didn’t speak Cantonese because when Apple’s slogan “This is 7.” was advertised in Hong Kong, it garnered headlines for all the wrong reasons. “7” is slang for “penis” in Cantonese, Hong Kong’s principle spoken language.

We always recommend our clients to stay loyal to their long-time translators because even in 21st century, loyalty does pay off.

Myth 3: Professionals Can Translate Everything

Award-winning British translator David Bellos has written an entire book, Is That A Fish In Your Ear?, on his profession. He says, “Translators don’t translate Chinese kitchen recipes ‘into English.’ If they are translators, they translate them into kitchen recipes.”

What he tries to tell us is that “translating something ‘from cold’, ‘unseen’, ‘out of the blue’ or, as some literary scholars would put it, ‘translating a text in an for itself’ isn’t technically possible.”

“Many genres have recognizable forms in the majority of languages and cultures: kitchen recipes, fairground hype…” and no cold translation can take those considerations into account.

For instance, a translator who has spent half his life making latest Russian or Chinese scientific research available to American scientists will not be the best person to handle literary texts.

If you have a legal text that needs to be translated from German into French, hire someone who is not only at home with both languages but is familiar with the French and German law. It may cost you more, but you are more likely to end up with a translation the lawyers can use.

The Moral of the Story Is…

Don’t hire a translator just because he or she is certified. Find a professional whose skillset matches your requirements.

Don’t switch traskill set to save a little money. It’s bad for your brand and increases the probability of mistakes creeping in.

Hire a translator who is not only good at languages but is familiar with your text’s genre.

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