Nobody summed it up quite as succinctly as Roman emperor Charles V when he declared: “I speak Spanish to God, Italian to women, French to men, and German to my horse.”
Have you ever used Google Translate? Sometimes you get what you’re looking for, if it’s one word or a simple sentence. For more complex sentences, though, you end up with something completely wrong. In many instances, these translation fails aren’t just erroneous — they’re hilarious.
Auto-translation software treats language as if it’s an algorithm to deduce and put back together. No software is advanced enough to capture the nuance and true structure of language as a concept.
While translation programs understand a language at its most basic level, they are not good in a business context. For business translation, accuracy and fluid communication are paramount.
It’s not all serious, though. Sometimes, business translation fails aren’t necessarily offensive or insulting… they’re just plain funny! Translation fails are something of a hit on social media. Below are a few big mistakes from 2016 that had the world in stitches.
Tom Scott and Gretchen McCulloch of All Things Linguistic produced a very entertaining video that does an excellent job at explaining some of the challenges of machine translation — and why human translators are so incredibly difficult to replace.
In just 5 minutes, Tom gives some vivid examples on how language can trip up computers, including context, concepts that don’t match between languages or don’t translate at all, and shared expectations — and you’ll also learn why there is no way to translate the meaning of “oppan Gangnam style” into a single English sentence. (more…)
(and which they unfortunately hear way too often)
Here are some of the comments I have heard firsthand from potential customers, over my many years working in the field of translation. I think that all translators have heard these at some point …
1 – You say you’re a translator and you can only speak three languages???
Or: You’re a translator and you don’t know how to say “Best Regards” in Chinese?
2 – I have about 45 pages to get a rush translation on by tomorrow, can you give me a discount?
3 – The document I have enclosed is a PDF created with InDesign. I absolutely need the formatting to be maintained.
4 – US$ 300,00 to translate 3000 words ? I am not prepared to pay that much. My nephew studied one month in France, he can handle this translation perfectly well for US$ 50,00 .
5 – You are a thief! I know a translator and he only gets a few cents per word, and you want US$ 400 to translate 5000 words !!!
6 – My secretary is bilingual and read your translation into Spanish. She thought it was absolutely terrible.
7 – Can you translate “Revenge is a dish best served cold” into one single Chinese character? It’s for a tattoo…
8 – I need my website www.domain.com translated. Part of it is Flash and the remaining part is dynamic content managed via a database. Please look at the website and send me a detailed quote.
9 – What does “XXX” mean (word taken out of context)? If you are a real translator, you should know!
10 – What did you study in order to become a translator? Literature?
Or: Translation isn’t a real job.
Or the ever popular: You spend your life sitting at home, working at your computer in your pajamas, and you earn your living doing that?
11 – The document to be translated is confidential and I can’t send it to you, but I need to know how much you are going to charge for it to be translated!
12 – Why are you charging so much when there are free software programs that do machine translations?
13 – Why do you need dictionaries? Aren’t you a professional translator?
14 – There’s no way that could take so long. This text is only about 20 pages long and that shouldn’t take you any more than two days to translate!
15 – Please provide me with a rush translation of this 10 page contract. My customer is waiting in my office to get the document in his language.
The proper term is “cross-linguistic onomatopoeia,” but James Chapman just calls them “sounds in other languages”: from the crying of a baby in Spanish (buá buá), the crowing of a rooster in French (cocorico), the clicking of a camera in Russian (shchyolk) to the ringing of a telephone in Italian (drin drin). On Wikipedia you can find an exhaustive list of words describing noises from around the world. (more…)
Did you know “mortgage” comes from the French for “death pledge”? Or that “senator” shares its root with “senile”? Mental Floss’s John Green explains 40 weird word origins in this video: