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Lost in Translation? 4 Ways to Get It Right

lost in translation

We’ve all seen them: eyebrow-raising “translations” that leave you either shaking your head or slapping your knee. Just ask Google and you’ll find countless examples.

While blunders like these make for great laughs, translation errors can have far more serious consequences on a company’s image— and your business.

Ever wondered how translations go astray? The road to getting translation right is congested with many common misconceptions. Think of them as billboards that constantly distract and confuse:

  • “Everybody speaks English now. You don’t need an interpreter or a translator!”
  • “Your coworker knows Spanish. Have her do it!”
  • “Just run it through Google Translate!”

Many people do speak English, so you probably won’t need a professional interpreter on your next family vacation. And if your colleague speaks Spanish, by all means put her skills to use. Even free online translation tools have their place: browsing foreign language websites is a great example.

The trouble is that when it comes to your business—where your company’s reputation and even legal liability come into play—blindly trusting your instinct to dismiss the importance of a solid, professional translation process will lead you down a road that can end in costly embarrassment…

Here are four of the most common misconceptions that obstruct the road to great translation.

1. Everybody speaks English now. Why do I even need an interpreter or translator?

In truth, only 17% of the world’s population speaks English natively. Non-native speakers can easily misunderstand, misconstrue, or completely miss the fine points of your message. Wit and persuasion can fall flat.

Only 17% of the world’s population speaks English natively. Click To Tweet

Research shows that when people spend their own money, they want to use their own language. Don’t you? International players know this already. That’s why so many commercial websites around the world are professionally translated and updated in multiple languages. It’s just good business sense.

2. My coworker knows Spanish. Why not just have her do the translation/interpreting?

Knowing two languages doesn’t make you a translator or interpreter, just like knowing how to sing doesn’t make you an opera star.

Knowing two languages doesn’t make you a translator or interpreter. Click To Tweet

Here’s the problem: many bilingual people overestimate their skills. Even when bilinguals are fluent in both languages, they aren’t always good at moving information and emotion across the language and cultural barrier. Often, relying on an amateur is a waste of human and financial resources.

Professional translators and interpreters can transfer complex ideas—technical, legal, financial, and more—accurately between languages and cultures. Professionals also have specialized terminology and subject-area knowledge, and they know how to choose the most appropriate solution when a word has many possible translations. All of this takes considerable experience and top-notch writing skills.

3. Can’t I just use a free online translation tool?

The short answer is no. A computer simply cannot comprehend all the nuances of language. It cannot interpret the meaning of a text. It can only read the words and translate them based on dictionaries, databases, or other algorithms. You cannot ask clarifying questions of these tools or explain the context of your document to them.

A computer simply cannot comprehend all the nuances of language. Click To Tweet

You can’t afford to risk your image, liability, and reputation. Services like Google and Bing might help when you need to get the gist of a document quickly and when accuracy isn’t important. But if you use them to translate something into a language you don’t speak, you’ll have no idea what the outcome is and where the errors are.

4. Aren’t computers replacing human translators?

Interestingly, since free online translation services have been around, the market for professional translation and interpreting has actually increased. This isn’t surprising: as Google and Bing open the door to global markets, users often discover just how important translation is—and realize they have sophisticated language needs that only human professionals can meet. Machine translation is a growing industry, but even then, the output needs to be edited by (human) professionals to eliminate errors.

Don’t get lost

Getting a translation wrong can hurt your image and your business. Getting it right can be as simple as understanding the need for professional translation and interpreting—the road map that keeps you from getting lost. Whether you’re translating a multi-million-dollar advertising campaign, a product brochure, or information about government compliance, consult a professional. That way you’ll be sure you’re keeping your eyes on the road each and every time.

Getting a translation wrong can hurt your image and your business. Click To Tweet


matt baird translatorMatt Baird is a professional German-to-English translator with over 15 years of experience. He also serves as a speaker for the American Translators Association, which represents over 10,000 translators and interpreters across 91 countries. Along with advancing the translation and interpreting professions, ATA promotes the education and development of language services to providers and consumers alike.



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