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

Business translation errors can be the stuff of legend. Product names or company slogans have been translated into expressions that, in other languages, sounded vulgar, embarrassing, or simply confusing to intended customers. Entire international marketing campaigns can find grief over simple, avoidable blunders in how another country communicates.

Bad translations can be a costly accident, but good translations are no accident. These come about when organizations call on skilled human translators, maintain a translation memory, and enter new markets with perfect yet fiscally sound precision. Avoid the following four approaches, and you can keep from looking funny to onlookers and evoke smiles across the company.

Using Free Machine Translation

Translation errors are real and expensive, as Chad Brooks notes at Business News Daily. When Ford tried to tell Belgian customers that “Every car has a high-quality body,” the translation for “body” actually meant “corpse.”

And when one-time US airline Braniff promoted its leather seats with the slogan, “Fly in Leather,” the Spanish translation told Mexican customers to “Fly naked.”

This type of mistake goes back before the days of free automated translation systems such as Google Translate. But today, these systems are all too easy and convenient to use — or, for the careless or hasty, to misuse.

The single most crucial practice in translation projects is to call on skilled human translators, rather than automated translations, which offer inexpert judgments that don’t account for cultural gaps in basic terminology.

Defining the Words, Not the Industry

Translation errors do not need to be particularly colorful to have a vivid — and negative — impact on the bottom line. In the early 2000s, HSBC Bank launched a global private banking initiative with the slogan, “Assume Nothing.” In English, this is good, cautious business advice. In many countries, however, the slogan was translated to mean “Do Nothing.”

Global customers did exactly that, and ignored the marketing campaign. The bank ended up spending $10 million to change the program’s slogan (to “The World’s Private Bank.”)

To ensure translation quality, be careful to select only accurate source materials to work from. Lists of foreign-language technical terms and their meanings can be subjective or of widely varying reliability. Even skilled translators may be unfamiliar with unique industry ideals, allowing harmless taglines to become major marketing hazards. For this reason, experienced translation teams specify terms of the trade and their particular meanings in a glossary.

Not Using Translation Memory

Cultural messages, as well as words, can get lost in translation. Proctor & Gamble only mystified Japanese consumers when it began selling Pampers diapers with an image of a stork delivering a baby. The association of storks with babies isn’t a part of Japanese folklore, so the image meant very little to a Japanese audience.

Keeping track of translations through translation memory helps to preserve the accuracy and consistency in your global content. If translation project teams can’t readily access what other teams have done, subtle variations can creep in. These need not be dramatic to be confusing, either when explaining complex how-to steps or when navigating cultural norms that leave potential customers with an unclear company or product identity.

Spending No Time on a ‘No Go’

Perhaps the best known of all marketing translation slip-ups is actually a social myth. According to NPR, the Chevy Nova never flopped in Spanish-language markets because its name resembled “no va” (meaning “doesn’t go” in Spanish). In fact, the car sold pretty well in Mexico, and exceeded expectations in Venezuela.

Nonetheless, Chevy was lucky. Translation blunders can have many specific causes — unfamiliarity with a language or culture, or nuances specific to vocabulary. A common cause, however, is the inability to allow sufficient time for translation projects, which can reveal a negative meaning that didn’t exist in the original market. A rushed job is unlikely to be a careful job. But a careful translation, following best practices and free of translation errors, is an opportunity to reach out to global customers and potential customers on the best terms, speaking their own language without garbling it.

About Rick Robinson

Rick is a "near-native" Californian with a background in computer linguistics. He writes about technology and the technology industry, as well as a personal blog about space travel and related subjects. His first novel, CATHERINE OF LYONESSE, was recently published by Random House UK.