Ten Reasons Why Good
Translations Sometimes Fail

1. The “not done here” syndrome

The recipient of a translation just cannot accept the idea that anyone from outside the organization understands the product, service, company, industry jargon, etc. to be able to translate correctly.

2. “Made in the USA”

“You must be kidding!” Americans are not known for their language skills. Consequently, foreigners may find it difficult to believe that translations coming from this country are any good.

3. “Paris vs. Lyons” (or in other words, ”en mi país no se dice así”)

A reviewer can make any translation look like it’s full of errors simply by “editing” the document so that it reads exactly as if it were written in their home town or region. The translator or agency has to modify the translation to local or regional tastes (irrespective of the target market) just to get the reviewer’s approval. This “solution” can be a lose/lose affair. (Company does not get the foreign customer, agency does not get any additional translation business.)

4. “Throw out the baby with the bath water”

Reviewer finds one or two items which require modification out of thousands of words but then announces that the translation has missed the mark and should be entirely trashed.

5. “Let’s make it better!”

Reviewer/recipient of translation adds and deletes text which makes the “translation” into a different document from the original English text. (Reviewer may not agree with original English document and through the editing process tries to create the document he would have preferred to begin with.)

6. Cultural biases

American business writing tends to be filled with hyperbole and puffery. Or it may state the obvious in simple terms (i.e., “Don’t stick your finger in the wall socket when standing in water...”). Europeans, and Germans in particular, find such writing to be

patronizing, exaggerated, and imprecise, especially when it is translated into their language. (By law, training, and industry ethics, translators have to translate what they are given—they cannot add, delete, or modify the content of source material.)

7. Hidden agendas

The reviewer or recipient may find fault with good translations because he believes that they could have done a better job than the translator (or that their friend, relative, local translation company, etc., should have gotten the assignment).

8. The 20% factor

Robert Kennedy once said that “One fifth of the people are against everything all the time.” Applied to translations, one out of five people may not like a given good translation (while four out of five will approve the same translation).

9. “Your translator has been out of the country too long!”

Related to number two above. Germans (and perhaps Japanese) translators residing outside their homelands seem to be the most vulnerable to this accusation. (The basic operating assumption is that the language is changing so quickly that someone who leaves the homeland is immediately out of touch and cannot possibly translate well.)

10. “Your translation is too literal”

This usually means that the translator did his job but that the reviewer did not understand the translator’s role (i.e., to translate text from one language to another with no additions or deletions). This problem is more common in marketing-related materials. For example, the City of Los Angeles just spent $2 million on a new promotional tag line “You’d be surprised what grows in LA”. Pity the City’s unfortunate English-to-Spanish translator who will translate the tag line for $.80 (8 words @ $.10/word) and then be accused of a bad translation because it is “too literal,” “not poetic,” “misses the mark,” “insensitive to local Latinos,” etc.

This article was written by Richard S. Paegelow of Inline and first appeared in  the Northern California Translators Association newsletter.

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