Four Types of Bad Translations and How to Avoid Them

A bad translation is never forgotten.

As a translator, your translations will be judged.

It’s just a fact of life.

And what’s more, you will not be judged by how good your translations are, but only by any single mistake you might make in a translation, no matter how small or insignificant.

Even beyond that, you’ll be judged by the perceived wrongness of your translation.

Even if it’s not wrong, someone will think it is and judge you for it.

In college, I worked for a low-income health clinic.

I was responsible for tracking immunization records for low-income kids, most of whom were kids of migrant workers.

Because their parents mainly only spoke Spanish, we translated a lot of our materials from English to Spanish.

I was the most qualified translator in the office, so I did most of the translations.

However, there was a girl who worked in our office who was of Hispanic descent but spoke very little Spanish.

For some reason, the boss in the office felt that all my translations needed to be checked by this girl.

Inevitably, she would claim something was wrong and I’d have to explain how the way I translated the flyer/document/instruction sheet was actually right and she was wrong.

My boss always questioned my translations because someone else thought they knew better, even when they didn’t.

So it happens.

And it will happen to you.

Consider this.

You go your whole life translating things perfectly. Nobody has any complaints. You’re the master wordsmith and people love you for it.

Then one day disaster strikes.

You turn over your translation to a client and his nephew who lived in Peru for a year on a peace mission sees it.

He lays claim to his “superior” Spanish skills, trashing your translation for not being correct, because as he says, “That’s not how they say it in Peru.”

And guess who your first-time client believes? Not you the 10-year translation professional who’s been immersed in the Spanish  language over half your life?

Nope.

And you get labeled by this client as someone who doesn’t know his craft.

While there will always be critics, you should still do everything you can to be a professional translator and avoid being labeled as a bad translator.

The best way to do that and avoid bad translations is to know the different types of translations mistakes that are commonly made. This way we can avoid those in the future.

Totally Wrong Translations

Sometimes a bad translation is just that: a bad translation, a mistake, a completely wrong way to go.

This is the most obvious type of translation error and should be the least common for professional translators.

Most decent translators are able to avoid these kinds of translations, and if one of these does creep into a translation, it’s most likely a proofreading error.

By that, I mean it could be that a translator just misreads the source language and translates the text the way he or she thinks the source text is, when in reality the original meaning is something completely different.

If you’re making these errors, it’s time to spend more time improving your translation editing.

Slightly Off Translations

This type of translation error is more prevalent than the major translation errors, and can often be more dangerous.

The reason is because a lot of so-called translators don’t have either the experience or the training to understand subtle differences and nuances in both languages.

This happens when a translator knows the basic meaning of a word or phrase but doesn’t quite understand the exact meaning of what is being conveyed, sometimes as a single phrase or word, or sometimes its meaning in terms of the context of the rest of the translation.

Slang is one part of language that can vary dramatically depending on where, when, or with whom it is used.

If a translator renders slang differently than what the original author intended, the resulting consequences of a seemingly small error can be serious.

A mistranslation here could change a slightly-off translation to the category of a totally wrong translation.

If this is your type of mistake, it’d be best to spend more time on perfecting your target language or improving your source language.

Wrong Approach

One of the pitfalls in both translation and interpretation is that even though word equivalents can often be found, these might not have the exact meaning or quite the right impact to get across the intended meaning of the author or speaker.

When that happens, it can be extremely difficult for a translator or interpreter.

Sometimes both you and the client will have to live with the fact that your translation, while maybe not 100% accurate, is the closest available.

Other times, the best response is to not try and come up with an equivalent, but instead explain the author’s intention in a translator’s note or something similar.

I’ve often seen this in talks and speeches.

The speaker might relate a joke that works in the original language but just cannot be transfered very well to the target language.

Instead of making a mistake and trying to force the translation or interpretation, it would be better to say that a particular section doesn’t quite translate but then explain the intention.

There are times when one approach is going to be better than the other. The trick (and skill) that comes with being a professional translator is knowing when to use each one.

An important skill to have as an interpreter or translator is the ability to understand that not everything from one language is going to transfer 100% over to another language, and that the job of a translator is to try and get the original meaning across as best as possible.

Sometimes the best way possible is going to take a little bit more explanation.

Awkward Translations

The last type of bad translations includes those that are not necessarily bad but sound a little off.

These types of errors usually surface when someone translates something into a non-native language.

To a native speaker, it just doesn’t sound right and it can sometimes be hard to articulate the reason(s) why.

As a translator, you need to constantly work to avoid these types of translation mistakes.

For most native speakers, it is easy to spot a translated document. As a translator, you want to keep your translations from being seen as translations as much as possible.

Until next time.

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