Bad Translation Affects Your Everyday Life If…


We’ve all seen bad English while traveling, in package directions, on labels for goods produced overseas. Sometimes, the cause is translation by non-native speakers who are poorly trained in English. (How hard can it be? Everyone learns English as a foreign language in primary school, right?)

However, Bad English often isn’t the product of poor training. Many manufacturers, both in the U.S. and elsewhere, use low-grade machine translation to translate instructions and product information. While these technologies are improving, they still need revision by a trained native speaker—and probably will for a long time. Without the human touch, the resulting English can be hilarious. There are many humorous websites that collect such translations.

Battling with poor translation is simply part of life for most of us. A Netflix series I watch showed a new father putting together a complex toy with instructions printed in China. I laughed myself silly watching his efforts and laughed even harder when his wife came in to patiently “help” him. They ended up throwing the toy across the room.

Usually, we figure out the poor English and move on with our lives—unless we’ve been hired to turn it into good English, as Tembua often has. But sometimes, bad translations can affect life in sudden, unexpected ways.

Last weekend, I was at the sewing machine working on a bridesmaid dress. While no expert, I am an experienced seamstress and understand garment construction well. I had laid pieces of a complicated lining together in the intuitively correct fashion, but I checked the pattern instructions just to be sure.

I was surprised to see I had one of the pieces upside down—at least, according to the instructions. After pinning and repinning the slippery silk together twice, I read the German of the multilingual pattern, where I learned that what had been translated into English as right sides up should in fact have been right sides together. I only lost ten minutes figuring that out, but somewhere, I’m sure, there are less experienced sewers ripping out seams because of that bad translation.

When I told a friend about that error, she chuckled and said, “Yup, just like my candle.” She had bought an herbal medicine candle for headache relief. The directions told her to light the candle and breathe the aroma deeply. It went on to say, alarmingly, that her headache would first increase and then disappear. Luckily, she reads enough French to know that the therapeutic candle wasn’t designed to make her headache worse; the instructions in the column beside the English made it clear that before disappearing, the pain would decrease.

We laughed together, but mistranslation to an antonym is no joke. Medicine has been recalled at great expense when its directions for use contained errors in the translation. International court cases have been thrown out because of translation or interpreting mistakes.

Despite their potential for errors, machine translation services are wonderfully convenient and free, and  Tembua gladly helps friends and clients determine when that level of quality is appropriate. We also unhesitatingly tell them when free MT may be a serious liability. Then, with the help of today’s technology, Tembua’s human translation teams go to work—with our right sides together, helping your linguistic headaches to decrease and then disappear!

We’ve prepared an informational piece that highlights some of the ways translation can go wrong. Submit the form below to receive it.

Patricia May
President/CEO
Tembua: The Precision Language Solution
pm@tembua.com