The hidden cost of DIY translations

by | Mar 2, 2017 | Translators' Column

Sometimes companies come up with weird and wonderful ways of saving money.

DIY translations are one of those.

Let’s say a company needs a whole series of interrelated T-shirt designs translated into a foreign language. They decide to have about half the slogans translated and work out the other half themselves by mixing and matching.

A little while later the translator receives a phone call: “Could you just check your translations, please? We’ve had complaints from clients.” The translator worries that they have made some major mistakes and cost the client lots of money. But, no, what transpires is this:

On checking the slogans, it quickly becomes clear that the problem was caused by someone who does not speak any foreign languages “adapting” the original translations. They took the “sample” translations, extracted words from them and combined them in a different way to make new sentences. To save money.

No doubt, the result cost them dearly in terms of lost sales!

English speakers understand that words and spellings are different in foreign languages. However, what they often overlook is that foreign language grammatical rules are not identical to English language rules.

So what’s the problem?

There are many.


Just because the word “red” never changes in English, does not mean that this is also the case in other languages. In German, for example, the ending of the word changes depending on whether the object described is grammatically male or female. The “red” in “red jacket” is different from the “red” in “red coat”.

Nouns and pronouns

The endings of nouns change depending on the implied question a sentence is answering.

“Nephew” has a different ending depending on whether the sentence is “This is my nephew.” (WHO is this?) or whether it is “I love my nephew.” (WHOM do I love?).

And, again in German, the word “my” changes depending on the implied question and the gender of the following word. So there are different versions of “my” for “I love my nephew”, “I love my niece”, “this is my nephew” and “this is my niece”.


In English, words are usually written in lowercase. Exceptions are the first letters in a sentence, the word “I”, names and some abbreviations and acronyms.

This is not the case in other languages. There are often very strict rules for capitalisation. Therefore sentences often contain a mix of words starting with lowercase letters and uppercase letters.

English language type setters are sometimes tempted to change a translated text because they prefer the look of writing with all capitals or all lowercase letters or a random mix of both. They believe that the result in the foreign language looks sleek or quirky. This is not so. To native speakers a text thus changed looks simply wrong. It creates the impression that the translator is incompetent and does not know the basic spelling rules of their language.

German also has a special character, the ß. This is pronounced like a double S. It can only be used in lowercase, though. If a word that contains an ß is written in capital letters only, the writer must change the ß to SS. Unless the typesetter speaks German and knows this, they unwittingly introduce a very strange-looking error into their design.

Splitting words

Splitting words so they create quirky designs is great but it’s important to know where to split.




is a poor split in English because readers will first think of an ass and then read “is” as a proper word. If you have to think too long about what a word or design means, it loses its witty impact. Therefore English-speaking designers would not split the word assistant in this way.

Attempting to split foreign language words, without knowing how that may change the pronunciation of the individual segments, or their meaning, is fraught with difficulty.

Avoiding DIY translations

Employing a professional translator and not trying DIY translations is the sensible way forward. Clients thus receive perfectly translated slogans and, hopefully, will not lose any more clients!

Unless you are an experienced linguist yourself, changing the work of a professional translator is a bad idea at best, a complete disaster at worst! You mess with the wording, you end up with a warehouse full of clothes you can’t sell – you have wasted A LOT of money.

If you have doubts about a translator’s work, by all means talk to the translator and reassure yourself that he has understood your brief. If you’re then still in doubt, ask another translator. But don’t be tempted to play around with foreign wording yourself. It is almost certainly a false economy!

Read this page: for further tips on how to improve translation results.

Accurate, confidential, efficient and reliable English-German translations

Professionally qualified German translator into English and English into German, offering first class translation services for commercial, industrial, governmental and private clients.

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