How come it’s so easy to come across a bad translation online? Are clients assigning their content to terrible translators? Is Google Translate being used more than it should? Let’s check some of the reasons.
Nobody can deny the Internet is riddled with translation mistakes.
While certain types of bad translations have become a comedy category in their own right (the famous – and embarrassing – incidents known as ‘translation fails‘), other types of mistakes, while less scandalous, are also relatively common to find.
The so-called ‘translation fails’ are almost always the result of a well-intended, but catastrophic, use of Google Translate (or other machine translation software.)
Hilarious as they may be, they are not the type of error that fascinate me the most.
You see, I’m a no fun, mega boring linguist. What really gets my attention are those translation mistakes made by the professionals. Because there’s much more ‘juice’ in a mistake made by a human than by a machine.
People often jump to conclusions and just assume the author of the mistake is an ‘amateur’, ‘not qualified’, or simply a ‘bad translator’. And it’s not just the ordinary person: translators themselves do that to each other all the time.
However, it’s not always that simple. I find that sort of judgement extremely unfair in many cases.
Even the best translators will make an embarrassing mistake at some point. And the truth is, it isn’t always necessarily the translator’s fault… at least not theirs exclusively.
Being someone who has worked many years as a translation project manager, I am very much a translation workflow geek. And I know for a fact there are plenty of reasons why even a good translator can sometimes make a critical mistake.
Translators are a central piece in the puzzle, but they’re not alone in the process. So my goal today is to defend my fellow translators’ honour and list 5 common reasons why mistakes happen.
I hope this will give some perspective and help you reflect next time you come across a mistake. This post is particular important if you’re (or plan to become) a translator: you are not immune to these very same challenges.
Lack of Information
Let’s start by looking at the most critical reason: too many mistakes happen because not enough information has been provided to the linguist.
When a new translation is assigned to a professional linguist, it’s in the client’s best interest to also supply things such as:
- the original source file
- a brief
- translation instructions (including style guides, tone of voice, etc.)
- visual references
Sadly, that doesn’t always happen… in fact, too often it doesn’t happen at all.
Translators often carry out their duties ‘in the dark’, without proper context nor any sort of reference. They are expected to just guess everything by simply looking at the source text.
This isn’t logical, and surely that’s not how translation works. It isn’t just a matter of knowing two languages and magically convert words from one another.
When a piece of content is fully subject to the translator’s sole interpretation and no aiding materials are made available, the project may become a slippery slope. Mistakes, while not inevitable, are likely to happen under such conditions.
Have a look at the example below. It’s a video in which I analyse a specific mistake which has probably been caused by insufficient information:
I believe the above example clearly supports my case here. Indeed, while working as a project manager, I often had to chase clients in order to ask for… anything, really. A brief, instructions, pictures, clarifications… anything to help the translators do their best possible job.
Unfortunately, there’s a considerable number of clients that simply say ‘sorry, we don’t have any of that, just ask the translators to do their best‘.
And that’s how most mistakes come into existence…
Another common reason has to do with some sort of miscommunication taking place at some point in the translation workflow.
Nowadays, most of the work we translators get doesn’t come directly from the end client, but instead through a translation agency.
The fact that our industry has become dominated by agencies has its pros and cons – which is a topic that deserves its own separate post. What truly matters for our purposes here is the fact that agencies add an extra layer of communication to every project.
Misunderstandings happen all the time. It’s a fast-paced industry, things often are needed for yesterday.
When everyone is always in a rush, some important bits of information may get lost in the process and some messages don’t get through as they should.
It’s already a challenge when you deal with a client directly. And when an agency is also involved, things get even more complex.
Information often starts at a corporate level. It’s provided to a company employee (say, an e-commerce or marketing team leader) before it’s passed on to the agency’s sales consultant.
Then the same is transferred to the project manager, and only then to the linguists.
And if the translator has a query, the chain of communication has to work in reverse.
In short, even a little misunderstanding may result in a gross mistake. And again, translators aren’t necessarily to blame here.
Another common issue in the translation world are the deadlines. More often than not, customers want things done for yesterday.
That puts a lot of pressure in the translation process even before the project has started.
It’s always a bit of a dilemma when a translator is asked to complete a task within too short a timeframe. Tight deadlines are part and parcel of this industry, so most translators might just take the project regardless; on the other hand, speed and quality are two famous foes.
Clients should be more aware of the damage they may be inflicting upon themselves by not doing things well in advance, which would allow more time for the translators.
Sure, unexpected events can happen and bring rise to urgent deliveries, but some clients simply don’t plan things properly.
Translators are used to working fast, but sometimes it may be too much even for the most experienced and qualified. Time constraints are yet another common reason why mistakes happen, and it’s not fair to put all the blame on the linguist.
Reluctance to Refuse Work
So far, all the reasons that I’ve covered place most of the responsibility on the client. Now let’s have a look at a couple cases in which translators are mostly to blame (which can also happen.)
One of them is our reluctance to refuse work. Professional translation is a freelancer’s game: virtually every linguist is self-employed these days.
That means we never know what tomorrow will bring. Today we may have tons of work to do; tomorrow we may have nothing coming our way.
Financially speaking, it’s a very stressful profession.
For that reason, when a client sends us work* our immediate instinct is to always say ‘yes‘.
*Note: I’m assuming it’s a client who’s willing to agree to our rates and terms, not someone trying to take advantage of us.
Sometimes translators end up having too much on their plate, and when that happens they may get a bit sloppy.
When you’re struggling to handle your current workload, you’re less likely to be as thorough as you’d normally be. All that increases the chances of making mistakes.
Finally, we must also admit that sometimes mistakes happen due to a skills mismatch.
I often say that the very same linguist can both be a great or a terrible translator: great within their areas of expertise, terrible on subjects they don’t know much about.
Example: I may be the best there is at translating, say, anything relating to retail; at the same time, I may have no idea how to translate a financial report.
I have stressed the importance of developing a set of technical specialisms in my post on how to become a translator.
It’s the best thing you can do to yourself down the line, as it will ensure the best possible results and avoid potentially critical mistakes.
Some translators overestimate what they’re capable of doing, thus ending up working on project they most definitely will struggle to handle.
I myself have made this same mistake on some occasions, so I became more selective in relation to what type of content I’m willing to accept.
Translation is much more than converting words from one language to another. Context is absolutely essential, and so are briefs, style guides, visual references and so on.
It’s up to the client to supply such materials. Linguists cannot create them out of thin air.
Translators are, of course, responsible for the quality their translations – but so are clients and project managers to an extent; they also play an important role in ensuring the best possible quality of an output.
So next time you come across a translation mistake, you need to consider it may have not been a result of the translator’s incompetence. Mistakes are also attributable to clients and PMs more often than you might think.
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A really interesting article – very helpful for a new freelancer! Thank you.
Thank you Caroline, I’m truly glad you’ve found it helpful! 🙂