Sure-fire Ways to Make
Good Translations Fail

This is a photo of a baby in a bathtub. If you stay in business—any business—long enough, you’ll find yourself facing a customer who is unhappy with your service even though you did everything right.

Language translation is no exception to this rule. Typically, busy firms successfully complete 1,000 or more projects a year. A handful of these assignments will “fail” for these reasons:


Client-designated reviewers often take their role very seriously. This zeal can lead to unnecessary stylistic changes—which are bounced back as errors—even when the original translation was of the highest quality.

In most cases, the reviewer wants to demonstrate his or her foreign language proficiency by making as many changes as possible. Returning a translation with no corrections might make the boss wonder if the reviewer did not take the time or have the skill to spot errors.

Editing instead of reviewing

“It’s too literal!” is a criticism that usually means that the translator did his or her job but the client reviewer did not understand the translator’s responsibility to translate exactly what’s on the page without making additions, changes or deletions.

Conflict arises when a client reviewer has issues with the original English text, and wants to change the content of the translated materials. In some cases, the company reviewer is not even supplied a copy of the original English document!

Hence, the translation review really becomes an edit of the underlying text, but appears as “corrections” to the translation.

Feeling homesick

A reviewer can make any translation look like it’s full of errors simply by “editing” the document so that it reads exactly like in was written in their hometown or region—regardless of the nuances needed to reach the intended audience.

When the translator is forced to modify the translation to very local or regional tastes to gain the reviewer’s approval, everyone loses. The client does not reach its target audience and the translation company does not get additional business.

Lending a helping hand

Even after the client’s reviewer and translator have agreed on a final translation, the document is not safe from well-meaning “tweaking.”

Marketing managers, legal departments, proofreaders and even printers have been guilty of trotting out the rusty remnants of their high school Spanish (or French or German) in an attempt to “improve” the translation.

Inevitably, unauthorized changes produce spelling errors, incorrect hyphenation, or even changes in meaning. Worse yet, such unauthorized changes invalidate professional liability insurance (errors and omissions) of the translation company.

Throwing out the baby with the bath water

In rare cases, the internal reviewer finds a couple of items that require modification, but announces that the entire translation should be trashed. Dramatic? Yes. Productive? No. A successful review requires both communication and collaboration.

Fishing for the missing text

Once a translation is complete, strange things still happen. We once translated the content for a regional bus authority’s Spanish website. One day, a mysterious button titled “Extremidades” (extremities) appeared on the site. Even odder, the button linked to a section called “Tips for Using Your Local Bus.”

In an effort to save time or money, an enterprising member of the client staff relied on a free online translation service instead of asking for professional help.

Stumbling on the finish line

A “perfect” translation can be ruined by failing to proof read camera-ready copy after the pages are designed and before printing. Foreign language text must be reformatted to fit into space originally designed for English. (Some languages expand while others contract.)

Most typesetters are monolingual and do not always recognize problems introduced during typesetting such as:

• diacritical marks (such as accents and umlauts) which turn into other characters,

• incorrect hyphenation (most page layout programs impose English hyphenation rules that may not apply),

• typographical errors introduced when rekeying text (especially captions),

• incorrect placement of captions, and

• text “nudged” out of text boxes.

Failure to proof read makes everyone look bad (the translator, the editor, the printer, and the client).

Whether you’ve worked with translators for years, or are new to the process, knowing these pitfalls (and sharing them with your staff) can prevent good translations from failing.

This is an update of our article which first appeared in Translorial, a magazine published by the Northern California Translators Association.

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