How NOT to Translate Between Languages

In honor of International Translation Day, on September 30, we've put together a cautionary tale of what happens if you don't check your translations.

Have you ever tried translating an English text into your language? How about the other way around? Which do you find more difficult?

In the translation industry, it is considered 'standard procedure' to translate only from an individual's second language into their native language; never the other way around. For example, a native Spanish speaker should always translate English documents into Spanish. That, however, doesn't always happen and often people end up with awkward translations.

Sometimes, translating into English can have hilarious consequences. One good example is a marketing campaign in Taiwan in which the Pepsi slogan "Come alive with the Pepsi Generation" was translated as "Pepsi will bring your ancestors back from the dead."

Pepsi magic

In Denmark, an airline ticket office advertised: “We take your bags and send them in all directions.”

Romania: In a Bucharest hotel lobby: “The lift is being fixed for the next day. During that time we regret that you will be unbearable.”

In Italy, a campaign for Schweppes Tonic Water translated the name into "Schweppes Toilet Water".

Switzerland: On a Swiss menu: "Our wines leave you nothing to hope for".

The most frequent translation errors occur on restaurant menus where instead of good food you get good laughs.

Translation blunders can also come about when translating jokes.

Have you ever tried to tell a joke in a language other than yours but people don't laugh, or worse, they laugh politely? How often do you use the phrase "It sounds funnier in my language"? Translating jokes is never a good idea.

Hopeless wine

Although most of the things illustrated above are funny, there is an unfortunate side to translating. For example, in medicine, banking or in the army, a minor mistake can have major consequences.

One way to avoid making major mistakes when translating is to use translation tools as little as possible. If something doesn’t sound right to you, it probably isn’t.

Also, make sure that you don’t translate word for word, as often the syntax or grammar in one language is different in another. For instance, Chinese verbs are not conjugated and there is no equivalent article for English's "the", which can create awkward translations.

Finally, make sure you show your translation to two or three people who have spoken English all their life and ask whether there is anything in your text that sounds strange or funny.

Don’t be embarrassed if your translation is not perfect. Nobody is, and we all learn from mistakes.

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