“How do I look?” – The perils of poor translation

Some years ago we had a giggle at a restaurant in St Malo which was proudly listing “tepid fowl gizzards salad” as a star attraction. This was before the days of “Google Translate”, but highlighted the inherent dangers of word-for-word translation. A “Salade tièdede gésiers de volaille” may appeal to the French palate, but the English version, although technically accurate, conveys a most unpleasant image – quite foul, in fact!

We have all had a laugh at similar gaffes in restaurants and hotels abroad, and no doubt overseas visitors to Britain come across mistakes which they think are equally funny, if they can find anything which has been translated into their language! At the local level, though, the stakes are not high (or should that be “the steaks are not high”?), with errors causing amusement rather than serious financial consequences. In a global business context, however, bad translation can prove both embarrassing and expensive.

The “global village” is now a reality, and the burgeoning use of the internet means that suppliers and customers include not only the larger multi-nationals but also smaller companies and individuals. With a substantial amount of new custom coming from on-line searches, it is fairly standard for larger companies to offer websites in at least two languages, one of which is English. Small and medium-sized businesses may be looking to expand their activities abroad, but companies are sometimes tempted to cut costs on infrastructural elements such as website design or translation. Yet poor presentation and inadequate translation of websites and promotional material can actually do more harm than good, by projecting an image of incompetence and lack of professionalism. In business, confidence is a key issue, and prospective customers need to feel reassured that they will be able to work on the basis of mutual understanding.

So, what sort of first impression are you making? A random scan of company web-sites reveals a range of levels of sophistication in translation into English. Where an automated translation system has been used it is usually immediately obvious. Sentences do not flow, word order is odd, the wrong verb tenses appear, prepositions are used incorrectly and terminology is misleading. Similar errors occur when a translation has been done by a non-native speaker of the target language.  Sometimes a hastily added and poorly translated section may let down an otherwise good presentation.

Awareness of the most common pitfalls and a thorough proofreading of the text before it goes live on the website can help to ensure that the damage is limited.

Has the text been fully translated?

Even the most cursory check will detect when headings or descriptions have been left in a mixture of languages, yet this is quite common on internet web pages, probably because an automated system has been unable to translate particular words or phrases!

The company produces verschleissfeste shaped parts and coatings.

Are there obvious spelling mistakes?

Final copy for the website or brochure may be produced by a typist unfamiliar with the language of the translation. A simple spell-checking exercise in the target language will help to weed out obvious typos and spelling mistakes.

The new bright offices represent the group and give us oportunities to extend. 

Our highly spezialized team will work out with pleasure the perfect solution for your application

We are a new player in a new market, so only a few specalists in the market know us so far.

However, an automated spell checker will not pick up on words which are in the dictionary but are not appropriate in the context:

XGmbH is a medium-sized company: costumer focused, flexible, fast and reliable. 

producing high precision products to the national and international marker

specialized in the micro perforation of pre-coated stealing and aluminium strips.

Check your grammar!

Sentence structure and word order

Sometimes the right words may be used, but in an order which appears clumsy in English:

An important role plays here also the selection of reliable sources and manufacturers of the raw materials.

Are the tenses of the verbs correct in English?

Many websites exhibit straight translation of grammatical structures which may be correct in German, French or Spanish but not in English. A very common example is the use of a Present Tense with “since” where the Present Perfect or Present Perfect Continuous is required in English, with “for”:

Since more than twenty years M S GmbH exports all kinds of declassified steel products

Correct version: For more than twenty years M S GmbH has been exporting….

When a translation has not been provided by a native speaker, it is easy for incorrect forms of verbs to be introduced:

All drug rights are transmissed to this company.

Make sure prepositions are used correctly

Prepositions are fiddly little words which are difficult to get right in translation, and often reflect a different usage in the source language. A widespread common mistake in translation from German is “Welcome at…” rather than “to”:

Welcome at F L GmbH! We appreciate your visit on our website

(“to” is required in both cases)

Our harbour facility enjoys an excellent reputation at ship-owners and our customers

(“with” is needed here)

Is the right vocabulary being used?

Sometimes terms used can be odd but more or less understood:

antibiotics both for small and hobby animals and utilizable animals.

In other instances the wrong vocabulary can be totally baffling.

It is a product specially developed to grief over all bilayer systems


Check for hidden meanings

Businesses marketing abroad need to be aware of the slang implications of brand names, logos, slogans and catch-phrases – more than a few high profile publicity campaigns have been brought down by products being inappropriately named in the target language. An IKEA workbench called FARTFULL raised a few laughs but was not a great commercial success. Sometimes such shades of meaning are unavoidable – perfectly innocent words can have “rude” or negative overtones in other contexts – but it is as well to be aware before others have fun at the company’s expense! Marketing a car in Spain with the name NOVA (“it doesn’t go”) may not be the best strategy!

Beware of “False friends”

“We always pretend to provide you the best quality in all materials”

Sometimes a word which seems the same in another language and which may share a common origin can have evolved to mean something very different. This slogan in English on a Spanish company website actually conveys the opposite message to the one intended, due to the straight conversion of the Spanish verb “pretender”, meaning “aim” or “try”. In English the word “pretend” has subtly altered in meaning over the years and suggests here that the company is passing off shoddy goods as quality!

By the same token, in Spanish:

Un abogado is not an avocado, but a lawyer

En absoluto means absolutely NOT

Un compromiso is a commitment, not a compromise!

Una carpeta is a file, not a carpet

Raro means strange in Spain, although it can mean rare in South America

Actual means current

Corriente means common

Asistir a means to attend (a class or function)

Atender means to help or assist

Recordar means to remember/remind, not record

Un preservativo is a contraceptive

embarazada  means pregnant, not necessarily embarrassed!

molestar means to bother, not to molest!.

The possibilities for misunderstanding are endless!

In the worst examples, web pages combine faulty grammar, spelling errors and un-translated words, to produce something which no one will bother to read. Employing a professional translator to do the job can not only save a great deal of embarrassment, but also makes economic sense by ensuring that the message reaches the target audience, is properly understood, inspires confidence and enhances the image of the company. Make sure you look good!

Written by: Sarah Wright




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