When Translation Goes Wrong: The Impact of Bad Communication

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Translation is an intricate dance; words wield the power to bridge cultures or breed discord. Here’s what to keep in mind if you want to safeguard your reputation while expanding into new language regions.

The ability to communicate across language barriers is imperative today, and the process of converting text or speech from one language to another plays a starring role in any smart business strategy. Yet when translation goes wrong, it can lead to more than just confusion; misunderstandings, loss of a company’s reputation, and even financial damage can result. This article outlines some of the complexities of translation, how translations mistakes impact your business, and what you can do to avoid the most common pitfalls.

The Intricacies of Translation

As you get deeper into the trenches of translation, you’ll see that it’s both an art and a science. It takes more than linguistic skills; you need an empathetic understanding of cultural contexts. You’re not just swapping words here—you want to convey the original tone, intent, and cultural nuances from one language to another. As someone who’s been navigating these waters for years, I can vouch that the best translations are those that feel natural and respectful to both source and target cultures.

You might wonder about the difference between translation and localization. Though they may seem similar, they target distinctly different goals. Translation focuses on changing text from one language to another. Localization, however, adjusts your content not just linguistically but also culturally and legally to fit the target audience’s environment.

This adaptation extends to modifying visuals and tweaking content to ensure everything resonates perfectly with your audience, right down to the colors, images and symbols you use.

Common Reasons for Translation Errors

Working with a wide range of clients and vendors over the years, I generally see several typical sources of errors crop up again and again, regardless of industry:

  • Literal translation: Phrases are often translated verbatim, neglecting their contextual and cultural implications. This approach can lead to translations that are technically correct but culturally awkward or completely off the mark. I see this happen a lot in software strings where the translator likely received little to no context from the developers, or in translations that have been internally drafted out of either convenience or due to a lack of budget by a native-speaker colleague who does not normally work within the realm of language operations. (Classic scenario: having Sam from Sales translate your product descriptions because, ummmm? He’s a native language speaker and sits right next to you?)
  • Machine translation limitations: Despite advancements in technology, automated tools still fall short when it comes to nuances and cultural context. They’re useful for quick drafts but rarely suffice for polished, professional communication.
  • Cultural unfamiliarity: A translator’s grasp of the target culture is as crucial as their language skills. Missing cultural subtleties can drastically change the intended message, leading to embarrassing errors or miscommunications.
  • Skipping localization entirely: Failing to fully adapt your content for the target market can result in translations which, while accurate, will fall short of engaging any audience. Your message just won’t click if you’re ignoring cultural norms, regional idiomatic expressions. Plus you’ll be screwed post-launch if you’re not complying with local legal requirements.
illustration of a translator sitting in resignation in front of his computer, headphones on, notes scattered everywhere, representing a lack of context provided when translation goes wrong
Context, context, context: make sure your translator has it.

The Impact of Bad Translation

Navigating the language landscape is tricky; the previously mentioned idioms, colloquialisms, and cultural references often do not translate directly. A phrase brimming with humor or subtle meaning in one language might fall flat or even sound offensive in another.

These blunders can confuse or alienate your audience, sometimes with serious repercussions for your brand.

Real-life examples of translation fails serve as cautionary tales for the importance of accurate translation and localization. There are many stories circulating around the web, most of which have been cut and pasted from the last person, some of them entirely untrue, many more completely lacking sources. They’re an absolute hoot though.

HSBC bank’s rebranding mishapis one great example of when translation goes wrong. In an attempt to rebrand their global private banking operations, they had invested millions in their new tagline, “Assume Nothing.” However, when the slogan was translated into some languages, it conveyed “Do Nothing.” Whoopsies. Cost them another hefty sum to correct in retrospect. True story.

Marketing campaign misinterpretations are a big deal. Imagine a global smartphone brand launching a new product with the tagline, “Power in Your Hands,” meant to highlight the device’s capabilities. However, when translated without context into another language, the slogan is interpreted as “You’re responsible for the energy.” This is a fictional scenario I just made up, but the point is that well-intended messages can become diluted or distorted if they’re not given the localization attention they deserve.

A poorly translated product name, advertising slogan, or marketing message can kill your brand reputation, alienate potential customers, and result in costly rebranding exercises. In legal and medical contexts, the consequences of mistranslation can be even graver. Inaccurate translations of contracts or legal documents can lead to legal disputes, while errors in medical translations can compromise patient safety and well-being.

Best Practices to Avoid Translation Mistakes

It’s not all that hard to sidestep these common translation pitfalls. Consider these simple tactics:

  • Hire professional translators. No-brainer, right? Work with professionals who are native speakers of your target language, understand its cultural context and have expertise in your subject area.
  • Provide context. It’s key in content translation, so you want to ensure your translators fully grasp it. Provide them with background information, app screenshots, any glossaries, and clear instructions to help convey the intended message.
  • Steer clear of literal translations. If you’re going the DIY or crowdsourced route, try to at least avoid word-for-word translations. Opt for a more nuanced approach that considers idiomatic expressions and cultural relevance. If you’re working with an agency or dedicated translator(s), make sure they know you want them to strive to capture your intended messaging, rather than deliver 1:1 translations. Transcreation, a creative translation process that adapts content to evoke the same emotions and responses in different cultures, is an effective approach for marketing materials.
  • Incorporate quality control loops. Implement a rigorous review process. Having a second set of eyes proofread and edit your translated content helps catch errors that might otherwise go unnoticed.

By following these best practices for business, you can significantly reduce the risk of translation errors and ensure your messages are both clear and culturally attuned.

Leveraging Technology

Technology, including machine translation and AI, has made significant advancements in the field of language operations. While these tools can be useful for generating initial translations or providing assistance to human translators, you have to use them with caution because they still lack the ability to grasp cultural nuances, idiomatic expressions, and context-specific requirements.

hand tapping the screen of a tablet

Getting Back on Track When Translation Goes Wrong

Preventing translation blunders is relatively simple: engage in professional translation practices and use translation services that understand the nuances of your different languages. This is especially true in markets where slang and idiomatic expressions can vary significantly, even within the same language. For instance, a Spanish word might have entirely different connotations in Spain than it does in Mexico, which could lead to campaigns that don’t go as planned or are mistakenly translated from the get-go.

Quality translations also depend heavily on the translator’s ability to understand the context in which your source material is used. Hiring translators who are not only bilingual but also bicultural is helpful. They can act as a proofreader to catch potential errors that might not be obvious to someone lacking local insights. 

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At the end of the day, many mistakes in translation can be chalked up to a failure to grasp cultural contexts and idiomatic nuances. It pays to work with translation providers with expertise and a track record in delivering content that is culturally appropriate and resonant with the locale you’re aiming to target.

As you continue to reach across the language translation divide, all you really need to keep in mind is that the goal isn’t merely to translate but to communicate effectively. By investing in a skilled translation team and insisting on thorough reviews and adaptations, you can avoid common pitfalls that have the potential to cause huge issues and land you on the web’s next hit list of “when translation goes wrong.” 😉

Jenna Brinning Avatar

Author

A localization consultant, writer, editor, and content publisher with over two decades of experience in tech and language, Jenna holds an M.A. in journalism and communication science from Freie Universität Berlin, and is a certified PSPO and PSM who loves helping startups and small businesses reach international users.

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