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
Tembua: The Precision Language Solution

From Crank Phones to Smartphones: Babies and Bathwater

A skilled and well-regarded translator once told me that he created each translation on a typewriter, folded it into an envelope, and mailed it to the client. If we wanted to work with him, that’s the way it would be. I valued his expertise, but the speed of business today simply can no longer accommodate those methods.

Translation isn’t done the way it was 20 years ago, any more than a phone call is made today like it was made in 1945. The telephone industry has gone from crank phones with operator intervention to rotary dial phones to car phones to push button phones to smart mobile phones that are actually pocket-sized computers.

Today’s rapid acceleration in technology would have baffled earlier generations. Other than my mom’s old manual typewriter, my first experience with “high tech” was the mimeograph machine at the nursing home where I worked in high school.

Don’t know what a mimeograph machine is? It’s what was used before copiers and printers. The one I learned on was ancient even then. First, you used a typewriter to cut a stencil on a special type of paper. The stencil was then inked and attached to the drum of the machine, which you can see in the picture above. Put paper in the machine—it could be any color!—and then turn the crank, visible at the right of the picture. One turn equaled one copy as the drum rotated, picked up a sheet of paper, and imprinted the image. As you can imagine, as a teenage employee, I spent hours turning that crank.

I took a small manual typewriter to college. NCR (no carbon required) paper meant I could make seven copies of anything I typed all at once. What a time-saver for those classes where multiple copies were required! I typed slowly to avoid correcting all seven copies if I made an error. Though I also spent many hours in the computer lab, I wasn’t word-processing; my time there was spent in connection with language classes, learning correct pronunciation and memorizing sample conversations. A decade later, my family acquired our first desktop computer. I have wonderful memories of introducing it to my elderly aunt when she visited. I couldn’t wait to show off my new toy to her because she was a legal secretary. At first, she waved her hands in front of her and said she wouldn’t know what do to with such a thing. But then I convinced her to sit down and just start typing. When she reached the end of the first line, the machine went to the next line all by itself. She was delighted! She instantly wanted to know everything the computer could do, and we spent several happy hours exploring it together. I often think of her when I read that senior citizens can’t handle technology. She was in her 80s.

The technological advances of the past decades have shaped the translation industry as well. From the typewriter-dependent gentleman above to today’s globally linked translation teams using computers and high-speed internet connections, translation has evolved to incorporate many sophisticated technologies.

With any advance, people are tempted to throw the baby out with the bathwater. We read every day that translators will be replaced by computers within the next five years—as people have been saying since 1950. Indeed, today’s computers do much of the grunt work that lower-level linguists once did, but the translation industry is growing at an annual rate of 5.52 percent and is expected to reach $45 billion by 2020 (source: Common Sense Advisory). Industry-specific technology has also become an industry of its own.

I founded Tembua just as technology was entering the industry, and I’ve seen it grow from an unreliable nuisance—there were times when I was tempted to scrap the whole thing, buy a manual typewriter, and fold each translation into an envelope to mail to the client—to a valuable tool.

Today I feel we have the best of both worlds: the linguists work within the software, the perfect marriage of human and machine. The computer captures their work for later reuse, ensuring consistency and lowering prices. This improves the capability of the top-tier linguists and puts the bottom tier out of business.

Today’s language companies need full-time technical staff to evaluate new technologies, implement them into existing systems, train linguists and project managers, and, of course, maintain the software. It seems like every day a new end-all-be-all system is announced, and we follow these updates carefully so we adopt the tools that provide the most benefit for Tembua and our clients.

Anyone investigating translation for the first time runs into a veritable storm of initials: CAT, TMS, TM, MT, SMT, NMT. Each of these has a place in the modern translation industry. We have developed a handout for anyone interested in learning more about the technology specific to our industry. Check below to receive it!

Patricia May

Jenny the Giraffe

Don’t let the readers of your translated documents be left in the dark!

“Jenny is sad today,” he said as he walked past me in the hall. My brain flipped through all its entries on the word Jenny. No, it’s not his wife’s name. I don’t think he has children yet. A neighbor? His mother-in-law? An assistant, perhaps? Then I remembered: he is a big soccer fan. The mascot for Sutton United is Jenny the Giraffe, and Sutton had lost its last match.


Context is king. From news articles to insider jokes to corporate shorthand—a listener or reader who doesn’t know the background is left in the dark.

Many years ago, when I was translating, I kept stacks of bilingual dictionaries on my shelf. I had legal dictionaries, economics dictionaries, automotive dictionaries, technical dictionaries, and medical dictionaries that showed German to English meanings, in addition to the German/German dictionaries needed to explore the nuances of a term beyond its translation.

Why did I need so many dictionaries? This was before the internet had expanded. Smaller dictionaries designed for travelers or students have at most two meanings for a term. Today, many online references are similarly limited. The documents I was handling were often very complex, and I searched for the terms in context if at all possible. It wasn’t unusual for the fifth or sixth entry to be the one I needed. When all my reference volumes failed, I found that reference librarians were an amazing resource.

One example stands out. I was asked to translate consumer materials for a very specialized knee and ankle brace. I have studied basic anatomy and physiology, but I needed more specific information on exactly how these joints functioned together. The reference librarian listened to my question and walked me over to the children’s section. She knew exactly which book would show—not tell—what I needed to know. From there, I was able to dig deeper into other volumes to understand more deeply what I needed.

As I began helping to evaluate new linguists and eventually formed my own company, I realized that one way to tell a rank beginner (or amateur) is if s/he uses the first definition of a word whether or not it fits the context. In one instance, the English read insert plug. German has eight or ten different words for plugs, but the linguist had chosen the one that means wall plug. A reading of the entire document revealed that the plug functioned as a stopper, not a connector. The meaning of the source document was lost.

I also proofread the translation of a manual designed for remote outdoor maintenance use along highways. There were so many contextual errors in the translation that I felt for the workers. I could just imagine someone in a snow-filled ditch with the temperature in the teens and the wind picking up. The poor person reads the translated manual and desperately tries to make sense of it. More likely, these workers toss the manual into the ditch and just handle the repair, making it up as they go along. What a waste!

Context is also the reason we warn clients against too many sports metaphors in their text.

He hit it out of the park or that was a home run or he benched me or it’s time to play hardball will not be translated literally from English. When dealing with metaphor, the linguist has several choices: leave it in English and explain it (very clunky); translate the literal meaning (better, but loses something); or find a metaphor in the target language that means the same thing (difficult, but the best way to accurately render the meaning).

If instruction manuals and business letters pose problems for the amateur linguist, warranties, IFUs, and legal documents of all kinds have traps waiting in their dense text to catch the inexperienced linguist, sometimes with disastrous results.

Professional linguists are trained to recognize and deal with linguistic hazards. Experience with numerous types of documents teaches them to look for the booby traps that various languages present. We’d like to send you information about language idiosyncracies.

Patricia May