You Don’t Say: Inept Translators can Botch Meanings

So, how do you pick a translator?

Think back to all of the operator’s manuals that came with goods built in Asia, with incorrect translation. Remember laughing at poorly translated fortune cookies?

Our translated brochures, Web sites, operator’s manuals, memos or business proposals may be the only way we can reach many of our prospects. Hence, it’s crucial that translation be done correctly. After all, your business associates see only what you show them — or what you think you may have shown them.

Proper translation is more than a word-for-word exchange. One has to think of style, finesse and market appeal of the translated words.

A humorous e-mail often circulates that points out translation errors made by large companies. For example, “Come alive with Pepsi” translated into Chinese reads “Your ancestors will come out of the grave with Pepsi.”

The Chevrolet Nova wasn’t renamed for Latino countries; “Nova” means “doesn’t go” in Spanish. You can see the problem.

Many executives have no clue how to choose translation firms. Thanks to the Internet, we can quickly check the Web sites of potential vendors. But if a firm has a nice, slick site, then customers can get fooled into thinking it’s therefore reputable and knowledgeable.

For years, there have been no real standards for judging and comparing translation firms. The CEN (Committee European Normalization), which is trying to establish guidelines for translators worldwide, conducts symposiums that includes representatives from 25 nations.

With so many countries involved, no one nation will dominate, and this is expected to create fairer standards. However, getting 25 countries to agree on anything can take forever.

Suzanne Robinson, president of Liaison Multilingual in Englewood, is active with CEN and also with the Association of Language Companies. This Virginia-based trade association is comprised of language companies trying to set guidelines so that experts and laypeople can properly evaluate translation companies.

Because the translation industry is so subjective, the association tries to focus much effort on processes. It addresses such issues as:

  • What are the processes involved in creating quality work?
  • How are translators qualified?
  • How are they selected?
  • Are there technical aspects to comply with?

Quality is often seen in the industry as “achieving agreed results between the requester and the provider.” With proper methodology in place, clients and translators can work together to discuss what the processes will be on any given project and define what quality means to the client.

For example, if someone were translating a sales brochure into Greek, the client and translator should get together, discuss how quality is defined, have the translator get the essence of what the firm is really trying to say and then work out a schedule of processes that will flow from this work (literature review, meetings with various departments, trial translations, etc.)

There are two main types of translation firms: broker and employer (for those that have large in-house staffs).

Robinson prefers the broker model. She argues that if a firm is employing, for example, a Russian translator, then that person will be used for all things Russian: technical documents, sales documents, corporate filings.

Yet that Russian translator may not be appropriate for all those subject areas. A broker has the option of finding a sales-oriented translator when that is appropriate, a technical one when needed and so on.

The employer model will succeed or fail depending on the quality of the translators involved. Often, however, firms use nonqualified (but in-house) multilingual people as translators. Speaking Spanish and English doesn’t qualify one as a translator, and many companies have paid dearly for cutting corners on expenses.

Other mistakes made in translation:

  • Not using professional translators — This mistake takes several forms: using only an American English presentation for all markets; thinking in-house people who speak foreign languages can act as translators; hiring, for example, a Chinese waiter to translate for you; or using technological databases to do the work inexpensively.
  • Selection — Does the translation firm understand your market space? Did you get a cross-section of good references, and have you spoken with them?
  • Timing — Engaging in translation activities at the last minute. Quality work in almost every field takes time.
  • Not getting expertise early — It’s imperative to get translators involved early on in the process, so that they can best understand your market, company and offerings.
  • Placing too high an importance on money — If Koreans can’t read your brochure, what was the real savings?

When hiring translation firms, be prepared to pay for services by the word and, potentially, consulting fees to orient the translators, get the processes in synch and allow the translators to fully grasp your business.

And don’t hire any brokers that don’t let you interact with the translators directly. We don’t need anything to be “lost in the translation.”


Bill Decker is the managing director of Partners International, which consults with firms on global business and creates partnerships in foreign countries. Reach him at bill@partnersinternational.com.

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