Translation mistakes – their types and consequencesMikołaj Gołębiewski
To err is human, and just as any other human activity, translations are not free of mistakes. And since some of the blunders are exceptionally funny, they often become the talk of the town. Even in the pre-internet era, one could happen upon some humorous compilations of such slip-ups in newspapers or other traditional media. Needless to say, however, not every translation mistake is amusing, let alone innocuous. When they concern translation of important documents, they can have catastrophic consequences, also financial ones.
Texts prepared by a non-specialist and not revised by an editor are especially likely to be fraught with errors, most frequently those related to punctuation, grammar and style. While faulty punctuation might offend only a handful of people deep in the know, other types of blunders – as they are easily spotted by an average internet user – can deliver a heavy blow to a company’s reputation.
If we work with content that has to be translated (this applies to such fields as content marketing or social media), it would be worth familiarising oneself with the most common types of mistakes to be able to avoid making them. This can be achieved through cooperation with experts or organising in-house workshops.
No matter the reason behind an error, however, mistakes lower the quality of translation – sometimes to the point that the text becomes utterly useless. But how – even if only out of pure academic curiosity – can translation mistakes be classified? Read our article to see how we approach this subject.
TRANSLATION MISTAKES – IN RELATION TO LINGUISTICS
Let’s begin with analysing the former list which presents mistakes common for all types of translation (except for typos and punctuation errors, as they are absent from interpreting).
Typos are, of course, typographical errors, resulting in a word (or a couple of words) being misspelled. More often than not, they originate from too fast (or, conversely, too slow and unskilled) typing on a keyboard, as well as from the translator neglecting to proofread their work in search of any defects. If we work in Microsoft Word, what can help us eliminate most of the blunders is turning on the spell check option. Sometimes, however, the misspelled word is essentially correct (e.g. “see” instead of “sea”), which is why software is only auxiliary and shouldn’t replace manual checks. The category of typos also includes incorrectly recorded numerical values.
Examples: “neccesary” instead of “necessary,” “independant” instead of “independent,” or “10 September 20022” instead of “10 September 2022”.
In all probability, punctuation errors belong to the most common translation mistakes – they are relatively frequent even in texts prepared by experienced translators. It stems from the fact that, depending on the language, punctuation rules might be either extremely strict and intricate and thus hard to memorise or relatively lenient and thus requiring a great deal of linguistic intuition. What is more, in some cases punctuation is covered at schools only perfunctorily, which can leave students ignorant of even the most obvious principles, let alone exceptions and more difficult applications. Punctuation errors seem to be of the least consequence – since, in general, few people are experts in this domain, only some readers may notice that something is off (unless, of course, the faulty punctuation mark heavily impairs the reception of the text or is particularly counter-intuitive – a comma in the following sentence “The first thing to be studied here, is the property of fungi” might indeed catch the attention of a wider audience).
Punctuation errors also include missing or double spaces, or double marks in general (e.g. two periods or two commas). Alternatively, such an error can be classified as a typo.
Examples: “If you want to rest, do some work first,” “First come, first served,” “I want, to learn this language” (the green commas shouldn’t be omitted, whereas the red one is redundant).
ORTHOGRAPHIC, GRAMMATICAL AND SYNTACTIC MISTAKES
Orthographic, grammatical and syntactic mistakes are, for instance, spelling errors that can’t be dismissed as a purely mechanical failure, but rather stem from ignorance, faulty inflection (in the case of inflected languages), erroneous use of articles (e.g. “a” or “the” in the case of English or “der,” “die” and “das” in the case of German), subject-verb agreement blunders, or incorrect application of participles. A great number of grammar and syntactic mistakes are recognised by native speakers – but while the most basic errors are rarely seen in texts prepared by specialists, there are some nuances that even the most accomplished translators might be unaware of.
My cats is meowing happily.
After trying as hard as she could, the job was not given to her.
He thought about his behaviour and it’s consequences.
My cat is meowing happily.
After trying as hard as she could, she didn’t get the job.
He thought about his behaviour and its consequences.
Stylistic defects, as the name itself suggests, might appear if the style is not suitable to the context. We expect a different style from a specialist article, and a different one from a blog post about beauty products. When it comes to content published on business profiles in social media, we are allowed certain freedom, but here too it would be best to use some common sense.
Some examples of stylistic errors could be colloquialisms used in official documentation (e.g.“Mr Smith received an admonition for smoking ciggies in a prohibited area”), language mannerisms (“He was, as they say, a software developer”), incorrect application of idioms (e.g. “I could care less” instead of “I couldn’t care less”), or malaphors (e.g. saying “to hit the nail right on the nose” which is a blend of two idioms: “to hit the nail right on the head” and “to be right on the nose”).
Apart from adjusting the style to a given context, it is essential to keep it consistent. It’s the failure to do so that renders the first example incorrect. Of course, there are situations in which combining several styles is acceptable or even desirable – for instance, if we want to achieve a humorous effect. The important thing is that whereas such ploys are deliberate, the same can’t be said about mistakes. So if we know our target group very well, we can try to wink at them – provided we are sure they will understand our joke and won’t assume we’re trying to curry favour with them, and clumsily so.
UNCONFORMITY WITH THE CLIENT’S GUIDELINES
Unconformity with the client’s guidelines is a situational mistake. If a company making the order doesn’t provide any instructions, translators are free to use their own discretion. But if the client wants the text to include specific key phrases and communicates it to the agency, the absence of such elements in the translation can be treated as an error. Yet another situation testifying to an incorrect performance of a task is the failure to use the client-approved terminology (e.g. provided in the form of glossaries). For instance, if the client applies the term “jumper” across all their texts, employing the word “sweater” would be erroneous.
Let’s move on to the analysis of various types of mistakes in the context of types of translations.
MISTAKES IN TRANSLATIONS OF TECHNICAL AND MEDICAL TEXTS
Even though a lot depends on the source text, technical translation – in general – should be as concise and comprehensible as possible. In the case of such content, employing an excessively elaborate style or an overly formal register that makes it harder for the recipient to solve a problem at hand would be considered an error.
Let’s look at an example – an excerpt from a user’s manual of a vacuum cleaner. “Keep hair, loose clothing, fingers, and all parts of body away from openings and moving parts.”
When it comes to wrong choices of equivalents, in the case of technical translation the issue is more or less straightforward. Apart from obvious mistakes such as translating “a red wire” as “a blue wire,” there might develop somewhat more doubt-raising situations. In a text related to the automotive industry, for instance, relying too heavily on the English source and going for calques often proves to be the wrong choice – terminology can be extremely nuanced and tricky. Yet another risky area is the one connected with numerical values. Whereas in English engine torque is often expressed in pound-feet, the standard measure in Polish is newton-metres – using the source units in the translation would be an error.
Overlooking certain parts of content inadvertently and failing to include them in the translation cannot be treated as deliberate and justifiable removals of a word or phrase (“translation by omission”) – such blunders may change the meaning considerably or prevent access to some important piece of information. If we translate a guide to Windows OS (e.g. for older people) and forget to mention that one needs to click icons twice, the text will be severely distorted – at least in this particular respect.
Lastly, we should also mention medical translation. Texts of this type must be prepared only by those who have expertise in the area, as there is no graver mistake than one that, for instance, would render resuscitator operation manual inaccurate. Such tasks should be given exclusively to experienced specialists.
MISTAKES IN TRANSLATIONS OF FILMS
The subject of register in audiovisual translation is somewhat more complex than in other types of texts. Subtitles are screened only for a little, while dubbing should match characters’ lip movements, whereas voice-overs should be relatively brief and concise to make the reception easier for the audience. Because of all these requirements, it might happen that – for instance – the register needs to be made less official to shorten the dialogues. Of course, if it’s not justifiable, one could just as well deem this strategy erroneous.
Also when it comes to the choice of equivalents, audiovisual translations should be evaluated against the requirements of their own category. Due to strict character limitations or the specific time in which a given text is uttered, it may be necessary to omit some of the less important pieces of information. If a character spits out words without any breaks, sentences such as “Could you please tell me where exactly this man is located right now?” could – in a critical situation – be rendered as “Where is he?” The question of omissions is quite similar.
Depending on the type of the show, incorrect equivalents can be chosen in the case of virtually every phrase or word in the source text. If there is a parting scene in which characters say to each other, “So long”, it means something along the lines of “Till next time”, and definitely not “Such a long time.”
Another issue worth mentioning is terminology consistency in audiovisual translations. For instance, if a translator has rendered a character’s nickname in a specific way, this rendition should be used consistently within the entire film or series. Moreover, in the case of series that are worked on by a group of translators, what becomes absolutely indispensable is the so-called KNP spreadsheet (Key Names and Phrases) in which the applied terms are registered and regularly updated. Any deviation from such a document would be deemed a terminology mistake. The question of consistency is, of course, of great importance also in the case of translation of books, games and other texts related to pop culture or culture in general.
MISTAKES IN INTERPRETING AND SIGN LANGUAGE TRANSLATION
To some extent, interpreting and sign language translation can be compared to audiovisual translation – in all cases the target text is transient, which means it can’t be received more than once or paused for deeper analysis (unless, of course, it’s in a form of a user-accessible recording). Because of this, generalisations and instances of word-clipping are not necessarily errors per se. Interpreting can be divided into two main categories: simultaneous translation and consecutive translation.
While translating simultaneously, an interpreter is equipped with headphones and a microphone – the devices are used for listening to speakers and rendering their utterances into another language in near real time. In this case, a lion’s share of mistakes can stem from time pressure, stress or unclear speech patterns of the people being translated.
The third problem can lead to much graver consequences than just an incorrect translation: in June 2022, interpreters working in the European Parliament staged a strike, refusing to interpret the utterances of people joining the session through the internet – their decision was motivated, among other things, by the fact that low sound quality has a negative impact on the sense of hearing.
Consecutive translation consists in the speaker talking for a while and then making a pause so that the interpreter can take the stage and briefly render the fragment. If the speaker’s utterance is long, interpreters write down symbols that convey the meaning of particular text units. In such situations, errors may stem from erroneous transcription or inability to decipher one’s own notes.
MISTAKES IN TRANSLATIONS OF LITERATURE
In all probability, blunders in literary translation belong to the most eagerly analysed ones – chiefly due to a wide circulation of books and an equally wide group of recipients.
Even though – in the ideal scenario – the translator should be supported by editors and proofreaders throughout their entire work, there sometimes occur errors that are later subject to heated debates among both translation specialists and regular readers.
Mistakes from each possible category (maybe except for those of purely linguistic nature) were made in the infamous translation of Grimms’ Fairy Tales published by WasPos. As Eliza Karmińska – an esteemed translator of the German language and an associate professor at the Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań – demonstrated in her article, the book was rendered through English, and not on the basis of the German original from the 19th century (as the publisher had claimed in their announcements).
The text is fraught with various instances of register incongruence with the one characteristic of the old times, Anglicisms (such as “lords” and “gentlemen”) or awkward calques. The detailed critique of the translation can be found in the original article (available in Polish). Incorrect terminology is a common ailment that afflicts non-fiction, including history books.
One of the trickiest domains is the one connected with military ranks, units and other army-related names, such as types of vessels and vehicles as such. If there’s a mistake of that kind, distinguished readers might assume that a given publishing house failed to hire a translator with the right expertise. It’s a common error of judgement, not only when it comes to literary translation.
On the one hand, there are rookie translators who still lack skills or people who untruthfully claim to be experts. On the other hand, it’s the publishers (as well as translation agencies and companies translating their own content) that are responsible for verifying the competencies of the people they work with. Subject matter errors often stem from insufficient knowledge, excessively tight deadlines or extreme economising.
MISTAKES IN TRANSLATIONS OF GAMES
While localisation of games differs from both literary and marketing translations, it still manages to combine some of their aspects, topping it off with interactivity. Awkward equivalents or punctuation mistakes might be a nuisance, but errors influencing the game mechanics are of a completely different level (yes, pun intended).
The process of game localisation is arduous and still not entirely “linguist-friendly” – usually, it consists in translating the so-called strings (names of items, texts appearing on buttons, etc.) with the help of such materials as screenshots or additional descriptions (if available, which is not always the case, unfortunately).
Hence it might happen that – ignorant of the context – translators will render chest as “a box”, not as “a bust” (as Łukasz Gołąbiowski mentions in his review of Assassin’s Creed Valhalla; available in Polish). Both these elements can appear in role-playing games.
And if, for example, a mission briefing in a strategy game states that the player has to destroy the enemy’s eastern base – whereas the source text mentions the western one – we’re dealing with a complete change of meaning.
Localisation is not an easy task, and the produced texts are often riddled with various blunders of all kinds. The portal Twinfinite lists several examples of bad localisation – some of the errors might be quite hilarious indeed.
MISTAKES IN TRANSLATIONS OF LEGAL TEXTS – ERRORS WORTH MILLIONS
Mistakes in translations of legal texts happen much more often than they should, about which we write in one of our blog posts. Obviously, they can have the gravest consequences, as they might influence the interpretation of law. Even though numerous legal texts include information as to which language version is the prevailing one, it sometimes happens that both versions are equally binding.
According to data showed on the website of JR LANGUAGE Translation Services company, as many as 5% of disputes between Chinese and foreign companies stem from translation mistakes. An example of such a serious error could be rendering the phrase “except fuel used for domestic service” as “except fuel used for domestic flights.” As one can imagine, the differences in settling profits and determining obligations were quite dramatic.
MISTAKES IN CERTIFIED TRANSLATIONS
An important part of legal translation are texts prepared by certified translators. Erroneous certified translations are problematic in a sense that a registered translator certifies their correctness with an appropriate formula and a personal seal. So what should we do if – for instance – we spot a mistake in the translation of a birth certificate?
If it’s a minor slip-up, it’s enough to revisit the registered translator so that they can correct the text and certify it again. But if the error is too grave to be dealt with in this manner, depending on your country’s laws, you can file an official complaint. In Poland, for example, registered translators are legally responsible for their work.
MISTAKES IN TRANSLATIONS OF COMMERCIAL AND MARKETING TEXTS
We have already discussed the topic of mistakes in commercial translations. Due to their striking nature, they can compete with errors in literary translation – and they too have the power to make the recipients split their sides. To make sure your content doesn’t provoke bursts of laughter (unless you’re writing stand-up comedy), it would be best to cooperate with specialists – for instance, with locatheart.
As we have seen, translation mistakes are as diverse as linguistic aspects and categories of human activity. Although some blunders – when solitary and occasional – are not necessarily evidence of one’s poor professional skills, their excess might be damaging to a given specialist’s reputation. Let’s remember, however, that in a broad sense, translation is as much of a service as a dinner served at a restaurant. Depending on the cook’s (translator’s) expertise, it can be an excellent, sophisticated dish; it might also require some adjustments – either minor ones (the steak is too rare and needs to be cooked some more time) or major ones (the dish shouldn’t have been served with meat in the first place).
One mistake doesn’t render the entire work unusable. Whenever a client notices some flaws or inaccuracies in a translation, the agency is obliged to review all the remarks and – if they turn out to be valid – introduce appropriate changes. If the issues are “non-culpable” – for instance, they result from the client’s uncommunicated preferences – the requested modifications are usually payable. The said preferences are then included in the guidelines for translators and taken into account in the future. In this way, with each project both sides learn a lot about each other, and the cooperation becomes better and better.