Top 3 Reasons You’re Doing Translation Wrong

Banana SkinThe Mail Online, which doesn’t shy from creating controversy, reported under a hysterical headline that one of Ikea’s product names translates into “cuddle rape.” It doesn’t of course (read the Daily Mail article or just trust us on this), but it does highlight the trap of using Google Translate as your authoritative tool on translated terminology.

Although this was the tale of one mistaken customer rather than of Ikea staff or management, it’s not like these things don’t happen at the business marketing level … and with disastrous results.

Which brings me to the point of today’s post —What gives with the thoughts that go into some translation decisions???

You’ve seen some of the most appaling goofs on sites like Engrish.com, right? Like that restaurant that serves up “Homous with meat & Obesity,” much to the delight of dining photobloggers. Or that supermarket that thought its customers would enjoy the day’s “Broiled Baby” special at $4.49 each.

But you regular readers will recall that we reported on that Olympics “Welcome to London” blunder and our position that translation errors can mean more than just lost face.

Perhaps it’s high time that we stopped just talking about bad translations and started pointing out how they’re made.

So what are you doing wrong, dear business friend? We’re glad you finally asked!

#1 - You relied on that Google Translate widget

Hey, don’t get us wrong here. We love Google Translate and, like 200 million users monthly worldwide, take advantage of its easy and readily accessible interface to quickly make sense of news bits, pen pal mail, and menus when we’re traveling abroad. But that’s a whole lot different from publishing a report based on such an error that ends up triggering a political scandal.

Machine translation has already rocked the translation/localization industry and proven that the future will increasingly lie in the hands of our robot overlords. Okay, we’re joking — we’re no more looking forward to Skynet than you are. Still, that doesn’t mean we need to turn over all critical business promotion and public relations materials to the machines today. If you’re going to use machines, be smart about it by relying on the post-editing services delivered by native-speaking humans … while we still can.

#2 -You hired your neighbor’s son, the one who took French in college

Yes, little Johnny grew up to be very smart. And keeping up good relations with the neighbors by hiring their son may mean one less confrontation about your dog burying the chewtoy under their rosebushes. But the money and good will you thought you’d save with no-longer-little Johnny is what you’ll spend in damage control with the buyers of your products and services.

Professional translation services, by the way, usually mean native-speaking staff and freelancers, who are university-trained in translation or certified by regional, national, and international associations. They are normally backed by proofreaders and editors; larger initiatives then demand project managers and subject matter experts. The latter matters—Little Johnny may know how to translate I CAN HAS CHEEZEBURGER for laughs, but the right translation of Internet humor isn’t going to help your solar company introduce itself and its products to the Chinese marketplace. Little Johnny may not blow your translation budget, but he’s likely to kill off your brand reputation.

#3 - You decided it was just not necessary, was just too much, etc.

Ah, yes, the excuse mill for why your business is going to forego translation again this year to focus on other “critical” priorities, despite already having some foreign interest. Sometimes, we hear this framed within the real headshaker line that “everyone speaks English in our Industry anyway.” Uh huh. And this despite the evidence that nearly 75% of consumers make purchasing decisions in their own language (duh, right?).

Because localization and internationalization plans often demand systems that can parse foreign characters, currency codes, date formats, and more, the “we’ll get to it when we have time or money” positions usually mean having to undo — at great expense! — all of the monolingual investment in documentation, packaging design, marketing materials, and more. Doing translation right — even if translation is not on today’s schedule — means at least laying down the right foundation by thinking with your translation cap on.

Of course, if you’re not sure how to do that, that’s why we’re here for you. ;-)

Now some of you are working for companies that have their own host of translation wrongs. What did we miss? Let’s hear it in the comments!