Translation Errors That Can Ruin Your Content

13 Translation Errors That Can Ruin Your Content

Producing content for your business is a thoughtful, careful, and important process. You apply significant time and resources to creating content that is relevant and memorable for your target audience.

Once you’ve got it just right, you may be ready to have your content translated. Making the decision to translate your materials into one or more foreign languages is a big step towards serving a broader audience – it can change your business dramatically!

When you’re ready to take that step, you want to be sure that your translations match the quality of the English content you so thoughtfully created, right?

Translations riddled with errors will be ineffective, just like English content would be if it were full of mistakes! However, the types of errors you should watch out for in translations are often different than the errors you might see in your original English materials.

Objective vs. Subjective Errors

There are two categories of errors to be aware of: objective and subjective.

Objective Errors

These are things like spelling errors or text omissions. There can be no argument about whether or not a header is missing from a translation or whether a word is spelled right. These errors are considered objective.

Subjective Errors

These are more difficult to address. For subjective errors, you may have as many opinions on the “right way” to do something as you have reviewers. These errors are things like choosing between synonyms.

English, for example, has both “car” and “automobile”. They mean the same thing, and choosing between the two is a preferential decision – or a style choice. Choosing the “right” one may depend on where you come from, the tone of the text, the intended reading level, or a personal style.

Types of Errors

Here are the 13 translation errors that can ruin your content.

1. Omissions (text not translated)

Everything that was included in your English materials was put there for a reason – leaving something out could change the message completely!

You will want to keep your eyes peeled for omissions to make sure your message is communicated correctly and completely, as you intended.

Error Type: Objective

2. Text Not Adapted to Local Market

All languages are associated with one or more cultures, which opens the door for important translation nuances. If you’re translating your materials into French, for example, you will want to let your translation vendor know where the target audience is located – Canada? Europe? Africa?

Canadian French and European French are arguably the most common choices for French translations, and they differ in many ways. In spoken language the differences are more noticeable, but there are key differences in their written forms that will make it easy for a French speaker to identify which dialect is being used.

For example, Canadian French vocabulary has a lot more anglicisms used in writing than European French. And there are some subtle grammar differences between the two as well, such as the use of “que” as a relative pronoun in Canadian French.

Example:

EnglishI found the document (which) I need.
Canadian FrenchJ’ai trouvé le document que j’ai de besoin.
European FrenchJ’ai trouvé le document dont j’ai besoin.

While all of the French speakers in the world can understand each other, adapting your translations to the intended market will help the readers relate to your content, and – in some cases – may be important so as not to alienate the readers and make them feel like an afterthought when they see that the translation was made for France when they live in Canada.

Error Type: Subjective

3. Mistranslations

This kind of error has arguably the worst consequences. Language is so creative and the ways to express the same things are many. But sometimes a translator may misread a sentence, which leads to a mistranslation.

This can happen due to a translator’s lack of knowledge in the subject area, homographs (words that are spelled the same, but have different meanings) that are read as the wrong word, or simple human error.

These kinds of errors can be avoided by having a second (or even third) linguist proofread the translations. Four eyes are better than two!

Error Type: Objective

4. Reference Materials Not Reviewed

Translators rarely work without the support of reference materials. If you have been with the same translation vendor for a while, they probably have a large Translation Memory (TM) database for you, which the linguists refer to while working. Additional resources include: glossaries, style guide, dictionaries, product information, and company background.

It can be painfully obvious when a translator did not review the reference materials. They will be less familiar with the content and their translations will not sound as professional and will not be as consistent with your previously translated materials.

Error Type: Subjective

5. Style Guide Not Followed

Your materials were carefully designed in English to cater to your target audience, and your translations need to target foreign language speakers of the same audience. Imagine if you wrote at a 5th grade reading level for a medical research study! Or an academic level for 5th grade summer camp materials!

In addition to reading level, style choices like deciding between formal vs. informal tone, whether to translate proper names or not, and how to handle measurements (metric or imperial) are equally important. It is vital to think these things through before sending your content to your translation vendor.

Error Type: Subjective

6. Spelling, Grammar & Syntax Errors

These kinds of errors fall under the “objective errors” category. They will stand out as mistakes whether the reader is familiar with the original English content or not.

The presence of spelling, grammar and syntax errors in your translation will make your content seem unprofessional and sloppy, which is – I’m sure – not the image you want associated with your business, right?

Error Type: Objective

7. Glossary & Terminology Inconsistencies

Your business has its own culture, and whether you have deliberately chosen specific terminology, or it has developed naturally, you likely have a specific way to refer to things associated with your business. When that specific, familiar terminology is not used, it can stand out, send the wrong brand message, and even feel uncomfortable.

It is just as important to put thought into the terminology you use in your translations. Maybe you’re in the business of home rentals, and you would like to market to Spanish speakers. You may want to decide between “hogar” and “casa”, which both mean “home”, but have distinctly different connotations. What do you want your readers to feel?

Once you’ve settled on the proper term, it is important to be consistent. Switching up terminology can confuse your readers and confuse your message.

Error Type: Both

8. Table of Contents, Index & Footnote Errors

Tables of contents, indexes and footnotes are internal references that are often vital to the understanding of your document. It is of the utmost importance that readers be able to refer themselves within the document to find the location of the information they seek.

Different languages will take up different amounts of space in order to say the same thing – Spanish, for example, expands by about 25% compared to English. This can sometimes mean that a section will move to a different page in the Spanish version. When this happens, the table of contents and index in the translation must be updated to reflect the new location of the information so the readers of the translated file can access the same information as the English readers just as easily.

Error Type: Objective

9. Incorrect Hyphenation & Line Breaks

Depending on the formatting of your file, it may be important to use justified text. This is a formatting choice which distributes the text evenly between the given margins of the page. In English, this often results in hyphenated words which span two lines. There are rules about where the word can be broken – for example, you wouldn’t want to put the hyphen in the middle of a syllable. It would make the text hard to read!

Foreign languages also have hyphenation and/or line break requirements which must be considered during formatting. Chinese, for example, has very few rules about where a line break may go, but one very important rule is that a line may not begin with punctuation.

Example:

Chinese Punctuation

Error Type: Objective

10. Incorrect Capitalization

Capitalization rules vary drastically from language to language. In English, proper names and titles must always be capitalized, but not much else. German, however, is an example of a language which uses quite different capitalization rules – All nouns must be capitalized in German. Not capitalizing can change the meaning of the word entirely!

Example:

GermanEnglish
essento eat
Essenfood

Error Type: Objective

11. Incorrect Spacing & Typos

Flying fingers can sometimes make mistakes. We’re only humans after all. Sometimes a space may be missed between words, or an extra space might be added where it is not needed. Or maybe a “/” will be inserted instead of a “.” due to their proximity on the keyboard.

These things are easy to catch with spellcheck, but not all languages have this feature available to them! For example, Somali has no standardized dictionary. This means that there is no spellcheck, opening the door for more of these kinds of errors to slip through.

Whether the language in question has spellcheck or not, a human proofreader is an excellent way to help avoid these kinds of errors.

Error Type: Objective

12. Incorrect Spelling of Names

The spelling of your name is intrinsic to your identity. When someone spells your name incorrectly, it can feel like a personal insult.

Name spelling is particularly tricky in translations where the source language and the target language do not share an alphabet.

For example, you may be translating a document from Arabic into English – How do you spell the name Muhammad?

It could also be Mohammad or Muhammed, or more! It is important to ensure that the names in the translations are spelled correctly according to that person’s preference.

Error Type: Both

13. Lack of Post-DTP Review

Many translations are done in a TM tool. In these software programs, a text is broken down into “segments”, which are usually sentences or phrases that the translators work on one at a time.

Example of TM segments:

English & Arabic TM Segments

Example of TM text exported to MS Word:

Arabic in MS Word

As you can see from the screenshot above (example of TM segments) from a TM tool, the linguists are working on the text out of context. Sometimes the segments are even in a different order than they appear on the page. For this reason, it is very important to have the translations reviewed after they have been formatted/typeset (example of TM text exported to MS Word).

At that stage, the linguists can see their translations in the context of the formatted document, and may catch errors or inconsistencies that they would not have noticed in the TM tool. This is also relevant for websites or applications – localization testing is very important to make sure that the translations work in context so the users have a seamless experience.

Conclusion

There are many ways to ruin a translation, and the ways they can go wrong are sometimes quite different than the ways original content can go wrong.

Everything your business shares with its target audience – both in English and in foreign languages – should be reflective of your brand message and your image.

You can avoid ruining your translations with the common translation blunders listed above by hiring professional translators, making sure that your materials are proofread, through preparation, and by being aware of the unique ways translations can be tricky.

What other translation errors have you come across?

Feel free to share your stories in the comments.

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