We have all come across people with imperfect oral language skills. However, no matter how high the level of imperfection, we are usually very forgiving and understanding of imperfections when someone is making an effort to speak our language. So, why do most of us shake our heads when we bad translations in written texts? And it is not only linguists who join the grammar police here.
Two weeks ago, whilst waiting to check in at a hotel in Spain, my home country, one of the receptionists picked up the phone. After listening for a few seconds, she answered, “I will send my colleague (pronounced “collage”) to take your clothes off”. With raised eyebrows, we listened to a quick call to her colleague asking him to collect the laundry from room 206. I couldn’t help smiling. However, I felt real admiration for how efficiently she had used her language skills. She had answered the phone, switched to a foreign language she obviously did not know very well, understood what the client said first time and made herself understood. And then, I was even more impressed when she went on to check in the next client in a similarly broken French.
Why are we forgiving when faced with broken spoken English but scathing when coming across bad translations in writing?
One obvious answer is that in oral communication, we make allowances because a non-native speaker produced a translation on the spot. What is more, we have the opportunity to ask, if we cannot understand the message. We can also make use of other non-linguistic signals like pointing, facial impressions or sign language.
When faced with a written text intended to communicate in a foreign language, however, the author has had time. Time, to create a flawless document or even to commission the translation from somebody qualified to do so. Producing display boards, brochures and other written sources of information are long-term investments. Therefore, one expects greater care in ensuring that the resulting translations are at least as good as the original texts. Bad translations can be avoided completely with the appropriate care.
Above all, because often it is professional businesses and governmental bodies writing these communications, we expect correct translations. When we go to a restaurant we expect that a professional chef has put together the menu. Equally, we expect the work of a professional translator when we see a written, publicly displayed text.
But this is not always the case.
Why do translations go wrong?
There is a lot of misunderstanding/lack of knowledge about what translators do. Quite often clients place translations with people who happen to know somebody who can speak a foreign language. Indeed, a good regular source of work for me are other non-translator Spanish friends passing work to me. When clients ask them to do a translation just because they are Spanish nationals, my friends refer those enquiries to me.
But sometimes unqualified native speakers may take on such work, especially if they think that they can earn some money. These people will try to do their best. However, they are usually completely unaware of what a translation entails. They tend to lack specialist knowledge of the subject and don’t have use of translation tools. Sometimes they later realise that the task is more onerous than they first imagined. They may pass the translation on to a professional at that stage. But often they are not aware that they have produced a substandard product. And we are not even talking here about the amusing and nonsensical translations you can get with Google translate.
Certainly, I cannot understand why more care is not taken when town councils and local governments are investing a lot of money in tourist information. Even European Community funds are used to print brochures, buy large outside display boards or even carve information in stone. On occasions, it is pretty obvious that the translations have not been done by professional translators. Often it is quite clear that the translator has neither understood the source text nor are they a native speaker of the target language.
How bad translations affect readers – a practical example
A good friend of mine recently visited the Castle of Santa Barbara in Alicante. She sent me this picture of a display board asking for my help to see if I could make any sense of the translation into English. The story of the castle had fascinated her.
The castle of Santa Barbara’s display boards
In 1296, due to a marriage contract, the castle passed into the King of Aragon’s ownership. The castle’s governor (Nicolas Peris), however, refused to relinquish the keys, going so far as to embark in a sword fight with the king.
In the castle grounds were a number of stone displays with explanatory texts. The boards displayed text in two languages: what my friend believed to be Spanish at the top, the English translation underneath. Reading one of these boards, my friend’s enjoyment of the story came to an abrupt end. On encountering sentences like: “The King crossed his blade with him, and Peris did not realise the serious contempt that supposed to fight with weapons against His Majesty.” she was lost.
Immediately, instead of looking at the story in hand, she got sidetracked. The bad translation made her contemplate the inadequate use of English.
Trying to read the original text (top of the board) to work out what exactly the translation meant, I – as a native Spanish speaker – was none the wiser. The language used in the text was Valencian, not Spanish.
However, coming across texts such as these made me reflect once more. How is it possible that there are still important translations that are not produced by professional translators offering the correct language pair? On this occasion the resulting translation was very obviously faulty. Sentences were nonsensical. The translator used the wrong vocabulary and made grammatical errors. The “foreign” feel of the text further adds to the difficulty of understanding the story.
Not an isolated incidence
It is a shame that bad translations can spoil visitors’ experience of the most splendid tourist attraction. It is also a shame that this is not an isolated incident. This proves a distinct lack of knowledge and appreciation about the translation process in business as well as in tourism. One wonders whether the people in charge of ordering this particular translation are aware of the consequences. Their English language offering makes them look unprofessional and not really caring about the visitor experience of foreign tourists. And, if they are aware, will they take better care next time and use a professional translator with the correct mother tongue?
There is a reason professional translators spend years studying languages and have post-graduate translating qualifications. It may seem we are always critical of bad translations but since this is not an isolated incident, and often clients are not aware that they have received a bad translation, it is our duty as translators to continue to point this out…
So what should you be looking for in a translator to make sure you’re not finishing up with bad translations?
- Find a qualified professional translator with experience in the type of text you need to have translated.
- Make sure the translator can translate from the source to the target language. Ideally use a native speaker of the target language.
- If you don’t have access to a native speaker for the translation, find a native speaker to proofread the document before publishing.
The author of this article is Ana Ricca, a professional English-Spanish translator.