Translation Errors: Why They Happen and How They Can Be Avoided

Next time you need a lighthearted distraction at the office, type “funny translation errors” into your favorite search engine. There you’ll find an endless supply of misprinted restaurant menus, awkward street signs, and accidentally offensive T-shirts ready to raise your spirits.

These laughable linguistic mistakes become far less funny, however, when you’re the brand behind the misfired phrasing. So to reduce the risk of your localized content going viral for all the wrong reasons, follow along as we examine the root causes and recommended remedies for poor translation quality.

Garbage In, Garbage Out

Translation professionals are a uniquely diligent and detail-oriented tribe. Unfortunately, there’s only so much their good intentions can do to improve bad source content.

Providing translators with a clean copy of your text may seem like an obvious suggestion, but a surprising amount of projects kick off with careless errors and clumsy phrases sprinkled throughout the content. This negligence only triggers one of two results. Either translators and reviewers waste precious time correcting preventable mistakes, or the flaws pass undetected into the final product.

Simple syntax issues aren’t the only thing you need to worry about, however. Grammatically correct content can still pose problems for your audience if it contains culturally-specific references or confusing idiomatic phrases. Customers in Thailand, for example, would likely have trouble connecting to content loaded with American football metaphors.

Suggested Solutions:

  • Proofread source content with a critical eye
  • Fix any errors you find before delivering text to translators
  • Simplify messaging and limit the use of phrases that won’t travel well

No Clear Guidance

Good translation requires more than an accurate dictionary. Translators also need to know the intended meaning of your words and the purpose of your message. Proceeding without this crucial context leaves you vulnerable to several types of translation error.

The first issue to address is your company’s tribal language — that peculiar mix of acronyms, jargon, and favored phrases that only make sense to the people on your payroll. Expecting translators to decode your dialect is a dangerous game. Best case, they flood your inbox with clarifying questions. Worst case, they wrongly apply your terminology in a way that inflicts serious brand damage.

In addition to the substance of what you are trying to say, you also need to monitor the style with which it’s expressed. The tone translators use has a significant impact on the resonance and effectiveness of the content. An overly formal voice applied to supposedly engaging content can be just as harmful as a casual attitude applied to a serious topic.

Finally, the most impactful information you can share with translators is confirmation of where their work will actually live. All text looks similar when confined to a spreadsheet cell, so you can’t expect them to always infer a string’s expected destination. And when they don’t know whether they’re writing for a mobile app menu or a customer service email, all kinds of subtleties can go sideways.

Suggested Solutions:

  • Codify your terminology in a brand glossary
  • Clarify your desired tone and voice via style guides
  • Provide visual context of where words will live
  • Standardize approved phrasing using translation memory tools

Tapping The Wrong Resources

Clean content and thoughtful guidance should be top priorities in any translation process. But when translation errors persist despite those proactive efforts, you may have a people problem on your hands.

One issue could be that you’ve recruited machines to do work better done by humans. There are plenty of valid use cases for machine translation tools, but they all prioritize efficiency over quality. The human touch is still your best option for delivering error-free outputs.

Another common error of omission relates to the review process. Even experienced translators and editors won’t always arrive at the exact right answer on their first attempt. That’s why you need internal reviewers ready to pick up where vendor expertise leaves off. These subject matter experts, in-country employees, and UX designers are often the unsung heroes who make all the difference.

Once you are fully staffed, though, there may still be a question regarding qualifications. Maybe you are asking translators to tackle a language or topic that is slightly beyond their domain of expertise. Or perhaps the resume and referrals they originally provided have overstated their skills. Although these instances are rare, they do happen. So as an additional precaution, it’s always best to measure translation quality on a continuous basis.

Suggested Solutions:

  • Confirm the type(s) of translation you truly need
  • Match translation talent to your specific use case(s)
  • Customize workflows to account for all necessary reviewers
  • Measure quality continuously, using data-based frameworks

Learn More

What’s the single solution that prevents the most translation errors? Smartling customers consistently say it’s visual context.

[Editor’s Note: This post was originally published in August 2015 and has recently been updated for accuracy and clarity.]

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