Mistranslations may be funny, but damage your reputation

At a recent seminar for an MA degree in translation at University of Salford, Manchester, I asked the students to explain how the following mistranslations would be interpreted by potential customers:

In a Bangkok dry cleaners:
Drop your trousers here for best results

Outside a Hong Kong dress shop:
Ladies have fits upstairs

Although these caused great hilarity for the students, who immediately appreciated that the translations suffered from being more literal than grammatically correct, understanding how the target language of a translation is understood by native speakers requires nuance only gained from experience.

So why do people treat translations so lightly, and what are the consequences? Clearly, when you don’t understand how your translation will be read by the target audience you don’t give the translation as much attention as you should. The consequences though are more serious than just causing amusement, as the quality of your products and services are called into question.

The examples above are just small samples of translations found by people while on holiday. They contain most of the right elements, but they are certainly not right, rather like the famous television sketch says “all the right notes but not necessarily in the right order”.


English to Spanish mistranslation

What impact would such sloppy translation have if included in your company brochures, documents, leaflets or manuals? To have your customers point out the problems with your translation such as spelling and grammatical errors will leave them with an impression of lacking professionalism. They may well think you are taking on tasks beyond your capabilities, thinking that they are behaving as Del Boys.

The image on the left shows an English owned shop selling to Spanish natives, where the English is clear. However, for Spanish customers they get to read ‘Plug socket of the Hotel Furniture’ which is a mistranslation of the word outlet, compounded by grammatical errors. David Jason (Del Boy Trotter) would be proud of this, but if you don’t want to be seen as a Wide Boy, you should get a proper translation done.

Good quality translation requires a comprehensive knowledge of the source language in general, but also of particular trade of professional nuances that alter general meanings. Having a nuanced understanding of the target language is by far the most important aspect of translation and is the area where a translation becomes a gaff. Translators who have a native understanding of the target language are usually best placed to ensure the best and most appropriate translations.

Language translation agencies often use students with a limited knowledge of either the source or target languages, and the consequences are often poor quality, and can be damaging to reputations so it’s well worth assessing the real qualities your translators have – and perhaps double-checking translations. There is no substitute for proven experience, so if you want to avoid becoming a source of amusement presenting “all the right notes but not necessarily in the right order”, please do contact Braulio Ramos Language Services.

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