Translation traps

The road to Hell is littered with good intentions

Unless your translator can spot cultural or linguistic problems, the results may be embarrassing (and, sometimes, costly).

Your brochure is for Latin America. But precisely where in Latin America? Spanish there differs from Spain’s official language, and from country to country within South and Central America. In Argentina, a dairy farm is ‘tambo’. In Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru, the word ‘tambo’ means a roadside inn. But in Chile, it means a brothel.

Will your product be marketed in Hong Kong or Mainland China? Mandarin is the universally understood written language of the Chinese, but if your message is aimed at the People’s Republic, usage and style are distinctive and a different set of written characters from those used in, say, Hong Kong, must be specified. The printed character set used for Mainland China is not acceptable in Taiwan. Chinese-speakers will squabble about their language – just like the English, Americans, Arabs, Italians and French. It’s a ‘footpath’ in England, but a ‘sidewalk’ in the US. You may need a different version for Shanghai or Beijing than the one you sent to a Malaysian Chinese speaker.

Other dangers lurk. Here are some of the common pitfalls:

  • The translator is not a native speaker of the target language. Your local schoolteacher of French may be happy to help, but may not be French or have access to the specialist resources that are vital for professional translations.
  • The translator might be a native speaker, but has lived so long elsewhere as to be out of touch with current usage.
  • The translator may be a native speaker, but knows nothing about the subject. Translation of technical specifications may be inadequate. For example, ‘default’ in the sense of ‘a standard setting’ may be translated as ‘a defect’ (‘defaut’ in French). Phrases such as ‘lock-through-post gudgeon series’, or ‘Operator location inside or outside the cow circle and herringbone or abreast bail layouts’ can only be translated correctly when the author can draw on specialist knowledge.
  • The translator may be a native speaker, but may misunderstand the English: ‘Homemaker’ may be translated as ‘builder’, ‘diphtheria’ as ‘diarrhoea’, ‘respectively’ as ‘respectfully’, and ‘diet’ might be interpreted as a slimming treatment when it’s supposed to mean ‘the food one usually eats’.
  • The translator may be a native speaker and up-to-date with usage. But what about writing skills and spelling?

Cultural traps abound. Food is a good example. ‘Ideal for barbecuing’ is no good for packaging destined for Africa, where cooking over charcoal is an everyday method. ‘Garnish with crispy bacon’, or ‘Add half a glass of red wine’ is offensive in Saudi Arabia, whose laws prohibit pork or alcohol.

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