About Translation

Buying translation services might seem simple. It is—if you ask the right questions. How to ensure quality in translation? What are the risks of poor translation? Who to hire? Below are some translation basics that you should consider before embarking on your project.

What do you want to accomplish with translation?
Poor translation = Poor outcomes
Globish is not English
When being bilingual is not enough
What is at risk?
The dangers of using machine translation

What do you want to accomplish with translation?

At the most basic level, the purpose of a translation is to communicate. However, most translation buyers want their translations to do more than just say something. Whether it is for a corporate website, a research paper in marine science or an advertisement for a new resort hotel, your English translation should help you accomplish your objectives: present your company to the world, broaden the audience for your ideas, sell your products to more customers.

Poor translation = Poor outcomes

Second-rate translations are obstacles to accomplishing those objectives. They make dull first impressions, confuse ideas, fail to make the sale. In fact, poor translations can do the very opposite of what a buyer intends.

Until the second millennium, the destruction of the Guianan forest was sustainable although it was not eco-certified.
—Magazine article featuring Guyana’s wood processing sector
An article promoting an industry’s sustainable practices should probably write about “timber harvesting” and not “destruction” of forest.

In the aftermath of the YZ Summit, and on the eve of 2015 AB Conference, it is more important than ever for...
—Press release for an international summit on climate change
Defined as the consequences of a significant unpleasant event, the use of “aftermath” reflects incredibly poorly on the summit that this press release intended to promote.

To direct the visitor to the summit, fun and educational panels mark the route along a landscaped and well maintained trail.
—Tourist brochure
The strenuous climb to the top of this 1,465-meter high volcano suddenly sounds like a Sunday stroll with “landscaped” trails.

Globish is not English

These translations were likely done by someone with a moderate grasp of English, but certainly not a native English speaker. The limitations of their skills are plain to see.

In fact, even people who are highly conversant in English may not produce smooth stylish writing. While you might communicate easily in English or spend a lot of time in an English-speaking country, 9 times out of 10 your writing will be recognized as written by a foreigner. Does this matter? Maybe not. It may not matter if your customers are purely price-driven or if your intention is to stand out as non-native. However, if you are trying to project a professional image, you need well-composed, readable texts.

When being bilingual is not enough

A text translated very poorly into French. This form appears to have been translated by someone who is bilingual, but not a professional translator. Although the text is in French, it “reads” as if it were in English.

The need for good writing style is the most important reason why bilingualism alone does not ensure quality in translation. Professional translators are first and foremost writers, capable of producing text that communicates information effectively in the target language. They offer a solid and well-built bridge between the two languages, rendering the original text clearly and gracefully in their native language.

Bilingualism is something else. Someone who is bilingual simply speaks two languages fluently. There is no guarantee that the person is capable of moving information between the two, and especially in writing.

What is at risk?

Translation buyers who find themselves with incompetent translations jeopardize both their image and credibility, and may be risking far more. In 2001, Mead Johnson Nutritionals, then a unit of Bristol-Myers Squibb, had to recall more than 4 million cans of infant formula because the cans had incorrect preparation instructions in Spanish that could lead to serious health problems, even death.

The dangers of using machine translation

What Google has done is truly impressive. But anyone relying on it in a sensitive situation is likely to confuse other people. The problem with using Google Translate with a language you don’t speak is that you don’t know when it has made a whopper of an error. The Economist

A number of factors makes machine translation risky:

  1. Low accuracy
  2. As the Ministry of Defense of Malaysia discovered, machine translation can produce translations that are utter nonsense. According to one test, the vast majority of automatic translation yielded translations that were only 45-59% accurate. Even Google Translate, considered the leader in machine translation, produces translations that are only 83% accurate. Would your customers keep coming to you if you delivered only 83% of the time?

    An example of a translation error produced by machine translation Machine translation cannot recognize the proper name of the current president of France, François Hollande, referring to him instead as François The Netherlands.

  3. Lack of confidentiality
  4. Content submitted to machine translation is not kept confidential. According to Google Translate’s Terms of Service, for example, use of their translation platform authorizes Google to “use, host, store, reproduce, modify, create derivative works, communicate, publish, publicly perform, publicly display and distribute such content.” Microsoft’s Service Agreement for Bing Translate is not very different. Are you liable for the confidentiality of your documents?

  5. Globish
  6. Machine translators mine existing translated material to generate statistically accurate translations. The output is therefore only as good as the input. In other words: Garbage in, garbage out. Translations originating from the United Nations and the European Union form the bulk of machine translation corpus—texts that are known to be verbose and convoluted, and to employ “vocabulary that differs from that of any recognised form of English.

  7. Bias
  8. As a journalist reported in the French newspaper Le Figaro, dishonest website practices can manipulate the algorithms used in the most popular machine translators, such as Google Translate and Microsoft Bing, to produce deliberately skewed translations.

    An example of a translation error produced by machine translation
    A biased result: An Italian brand name is the English translation for the French word for a quilted down jacket.

If you have never purchased a translation before, you may be interested in reading this guide, published by the American Translators Association.