Lost in translation: communicators too often overlook the importance of good translation

June 1, 2020

As a young PR consultant, I helped my colleagues develop promotional material in support of a client who was planning to set up a joint venture to build a glassmaking factory in China for the manufacture of ‘architectural glass’ such as windows for offices and apartments. Our client ACI was a well-established Australian company, supported by its joint venture partner, UK-based Pilkington Group, who were top of their field internationally. The prospects of success seemed good for the trip they were about to make to China.

For the trip, ACI were using the marketing slogan: “ACI – Capable Australians,” which had been translated into Chinese language on the marketing material for the benefit of the prospective Chinese partner. But when the travelers reported back after their trip, they were quite gloomy. They had found the Chinese considered the translation of the slogan, “Capable Australians,” as a put-down of them (because they weren’t expert in this field), and so they felt a bit humiliated by this positioning. As a result, the joint venture never took place, probably costing our client millions of dollars in lost potential revenue. (Photo opposite of the A4-sized glossy marketing brochure cover.)

High costs of poor translation in business

This example highlights the importance of good translation. Over the years, poor translation has cost many international companies millions of dollars in lost business because their marketing slogans didn’t translate well to consumers. These well-known companies include HSBC, KFC, Ford, Pampers, Coca Cola, Electrolux and many more. The costs of translation failures are often more than just financial. Miscommunication can lead to loss of reputation, legal exposure, physical harm, or even industrial disasters. For this reason, clear, accurate and effective communication – between cultures, languages, disciplines, and industries – should be an important priority.

Good translation essential across key international sectors

Some of the industries in which translation is most used are agriculture, arts and entertainment, education, automotive, banking and finance, defense industries, food and beverage, government, health and medicine, hi-tech, legal, marketing, media, and tourism, online businesses such as websites and e-commerce activities.

The need for translation services is huge. Out of the estimated 1.48 billion people in the world who speak English in 2019, about 75% are internet users. Around 1.46 billion people in the world speak Chinese, of whom 59% are internet users. Third place is Spanish with 520 million speakers, of whom 344 million are internet users.

Just think of the countries with multiple languages like Canada (English and French), US southern states (English and Spanish), China (Mandarin and Cantonese), South Africa (11 official languages), etc. Such variations underline the importance of translating well. The lesson here is that if your company markets products or services internationally, you need to check carefully about the need to provide good translation for your content in your key markets.

Image: Brazilian brewing company Ambev’s web page with Google mistranslation.

Example of mistranslation resulting from the use of translation software.

If you visit the ‘About Ambev’ landing page of the Brazilian brewing company after switching to the English language version of the site, you will see a brief history of the company. However, Ambev has used Google Translate for the English language version, which has created a flawed version of the text. At the bottom of the above Ambev text you can see the humorous mistranslation:

‘Beer is our passion

Our business is your toast.’

The takeaway

A growing number of companies are using translation software to make the process of translating corporate content for their local digital channels faster and cheaper. Ambev’s corporate site highlights the risks of doing this without any human oversight or quality control. Much of the translated text on the ‘English’ version of this site is crude at best – and at times downright incomprehensible, as well as unintentionally amusing. Machine translation can make web editors’ jobs easier – but it can’t yet replace them.

8 misconceptions about translation and communication

The global language market is estimated to be worth US$50 billion in 2019, which has been growing at an annual rate of around 7.75% over the past 5 years – a fast pace. However, few people know and understand what translation is, how it works and where it applies unless they already work in the translation industry.

People who are employed in the field are typically asked what kind of work they actually do, or if they speak several languages. Industry terms are likely to be met with a blank expression and even the most common term like translate may require a long explanation.

Given this situation, it’s no wonder that various misconceptions abound about translation, and consequently, communication. Here are some of the misunderstandings commonly found about the translation industry:

1. English is the most widely spoken language globally, so there is no need to translate

Many business people still believe they don’t need translation services because English is the most widely spoken language around the world and therefore should be suitable for almost any situation. However, English may be the language of business, but most of the English-speaking business people are only in top-level positions, leaving a large number of lower-level employees who don’t understand the language. When dealing with new customers, communicating with foreign contacts and setting up business partnerships, it is critical to talk to them in the language they commonly use. One thing that helps guarantee success in the international market is ensuring that business partners and target customers fully understand your company and the products or services you are offering them.

2. A bilingual person can be a translator

A common misconception is that if a person is bilingual, they can automatically act as a translator (or interpreter) if necessary. Interestingly, many business executives would not normally assign the preparation of text for technical and marketing documents to a team member who speaks only their source language, yet they think a bilingual employee would be able to do this.

Translation is a complex process and requires training and expertise. A professional translator not only needs to be a skilled and creative writer but must be a native speaker of the target language and fluent in the source language. These qualities ensure that the translation is accurate, grammatically correct and very easy to understand.

Your employees may have the required attributes, but if you are going to add translation to your staff’s many tasks, it will put more burden on them. Also, as translation takes time, it will distract your employee from their core tasks.

3. Translation is just word substitution from one language to another

Technically, it is true that translation is partly word substitution. Translators exchange the words from the original language into appropriate words into the chosen (target) language.

However, translation is a complex process that requires a translator not only to be fluent in the original (source) language but also in the target language. It is not a literal word-for-word exchange. The translator needs to understand the context of the document in order to convey the intended message properly. The work needs the experience and expertise of a trained translator to understand the nuances of both languages, the grammatical issues and to choose the right words and idioms that will fit the end user of the translation.

Each translation project is different and the requirements vary. The way the document is written varies as well. Content for healthcare is different from a legal document, and a literary piece is different from a manufacturing manual. Therefore, the translation has to adapt to the preferences of the persons who will read the translation. If the translation is intended for high-level professionals such as doctors, engineers, scientists, teachers and others, the language and terminologies must fit their profession. Material for consumers should comprise words and terms that are simple and easy to understand. Such material includes general information, product descriptions, instructions and manuals for consumers .

Within a translation company, several people are likely to be involved in a translation project, such as a project manager, the translator, an editor and a proofreader. They typically use dictionaries, references, databases, special terminology and computer-aided tools to ensure the proper and accurate translation of a document.

4. A translator can be an interpreter or vice versa

Both translation and interpretation are language services, but the two jobs are different from one another. In simple terms, a translator handles written content. An interpreter works with the spoken word.

A translator reads and extracts the context from the document to be translated. He or she has more time to fully digest the content and use references and other tools to render accurate translation. An interpreter has a higher level of proficiency in the source and target languages.

There are two main types of interpreting services:

  1. Simultaneous interpreting. This means the interpreter renders what is being said in the target language as a person speaks. The interpreter has to listen very carefully to what the speaker is saying, as there is no time to paraphrase the lines. Simultaneous interpreting is typical in trade shows, big conferences and large multinational meetings, and even for heads of state at important meetings with other world leaders.
  2. Consecutive interpreting. Here the interpreter repeats what the speaker said in the target language when the speaker pauses or stops, typically after one to five minutes. The interpreter usually takes notes in consecutive interpreting, as it would be very difficult to memorize everything that has been said before the speaker stops speaking. Consecutive interpreting is applicable to court hearings and small business meetings.

5. Translators only know languages

Translators are required to be fluent in at least one language pair (source and target languages). But the work demands much more. A translator has to understand the culture of the people where the source document came from, and needs a deeper knowledge of the target culture. This knowledge is essential for communication to be more reader-friendly. The translator not only delivers the content in another language but has to understand the level of understanding of the target audience, their cultural preferences, and how they consume and use the information.

6. You don’t need a course in translation to be a translator

Many people believe that if a person can speak other languages, they can be a translator even without studying in this discipline. However, lack of knowledge of translation is certain to reduce the proficiency of the person trying to fulfill this role.

Many colleges offer programs in translation studies. Typically, you need a bachelor’s degree, but if you want to advance in a translation career, schools also offer Master’s and Ph.D. degree in translation. In addition to featuring theory and practice of translation, and inclusion of foreign language programs, these courses contain various other programs as well. For instance, some schools offer specialized translation courses to train students for positions in specific fields such as legal, business, education, mental health and medicine.

7. The saying “customer is always right” applies to translation

Although it is generally accepted that you should cater to what the customer wants, in the case of translation there are some minor issues with this generally accepted behavior. The translation project manager must fully understand the scope of the translation project. For example, a client may be intent on expanding their market in South America, so they say that they need English-to-Spanish translation for relevant documents.

However, this type of request is too general. If aiming at a particular industry, the request should be specific. The translation company has to know the exact location in South America because different Spanish dialects are spoken in the region. Moreover, French and Portuguese are also spoken in many countries in that region. If the client doesn’t know, the translation company can help determine which specific Spanish dialect is spoken in the target locations, or whether they may have to translate into Portuguese rather than Spanish. Same with deciding on whether to use Mandarin or Cantonese versions of language in documents intended for Chinese readers.

Moreover, if the content is for a specific industry, the translation company will have to locate a subject matter expert to handle the translation work.

8. Online translation tools are good enough

You would be surprised to know that many companies still believe they can use free online translation tools for their communication. The online translation tools don’t address context and other grammatical and cultural requirements. They typically perform word-for-word translation and provide translation outputs that are inaccurate and difficult for the reader to understand. For effective communication and to preserve your company’s reputation, work with professional translators so you can reach your international business partners and consumers in their own language.

Correcting mistakes

When you realize you have mistakenly created material that doesn’t translate well for consumers in a target country, move quickly to fix your mistake. Monitor comments about the error in social and news media, and use your professional judgment to decide whether you can discreetly change or remove the offending item. You may decide that a tipping point has been reached, requiring a public apology. In that case, ensure your response is appropriate to the culture (and language!) of that marketplace. Appointing a local PR firm to help develop a campaign to counter the problem is usually the best move if the translation mistake needs a public response.

In conclusion

The above misconceptions show how easy it is to overlook the importance of professional translation in seeking new markets and dealing with consumers and other stakeholders around the world, especially via online activities. Good translation should be an essential communication tool in these activities.

Kim Harrison

Kim J. Harrison has authored, edited, coordinated, produced and published the material in the articles and ebooks on this website. He brings his experience in professional communication and business management to provide helpful insights to readers around the world. As he has progressed through his wide-ranging career, his roles have included corporate affairs management; PR consulting; authoring many articles, books and ebooks; running a university PR course; and business management. Kim has received several international media relations awards and a website award. He has been quoted in The New York Times and various other news media, and has held elected positions with his State and National PR Institutes.

Content Authenticity Statement. AI is not knowingly used in the writing or editing of any content, including images, in these newsletters, articles or ebooks. If AI-produced content is contained in any published form in future, this will be reported to readers.

Leave a comment

Please read and respect our Comments Policy before engaging.


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Further Reading

How to use framing to communicate strong messages

A message frame is a guide. It informs people where to look, but more importantly, helps them interpret what they see. Every message – whether written, spoken, illustrated, or signed – is presented through a frame of some kind, according to the UK FrameWorks...

George Orwell’s Timeless Advice on Good Writing

George Orwell (1903-1950) was an influential British novelist, essayist, journalist, and critic who wrote the famous books, the allegorical Animal Farm and his dystopian novel, Nineteen eight-four, which are still widely quoted today. In one of his articles, Orwell...


No products in the cart

Send this to a friend