Translations Gone Wrong

Students have been talking about translation (written) and interpretation (spoken) in Spanish class recently. This week, they focused more on translation, after taking a moment to differentiate the two. You see, translation and interpretation are often confused and used interchangeably. However, they are two very different professions. In a nutshell… Translation is written. You translate documents from one language into your native tongue, and have time to write multiple drafts of a document. Interpretation, on the other hand, is spoken. You interpret on the spot, and there is no going back. Precision in the moment is key. Interpreters often work in politics, and thus must be informed about current events, slang terms and new expressions. Today, we will focus on the job of a translator and the unanticipated ramifications of poorly translated signs and documents.

It has long been said that the work of a translator (or air-traffic controller) is only noticed when something goes wrong. These mistakes can range from chuckles and rolling on the floor laughing, to confusion, expensive marketing slogan recalls, and radical global consequences. Regardless, it is clear that the bots have not quite mastered this profession; then again, neither have humans. Just because a person speaks two languages does not necessarily mean that s/he can translate (written) or interpret (spoken) from one to another. Translation is a skill like any other, and must be honed. Unfortunately, and despite serious translation training programs and certifications, this practice is sometimes learned through trial and error.

Translation disasters occur for myriad reasons. Let’s begin with online translation. Here, an algorithm might not have sufficient information about a language: users have simply not provided enough input, due to a lack of internet access or cultural interest. For example, if you live three days away from civilization by canoe in the Amazon, the Internet is probably not in your vocabulary, nor a helpful tool against a giant beast ready to attack. When Google Translate attempts to translate this giant beast’s name into English, challenges arise. Moreover, what happens when Google translates a phrase literally, with no knowledge of slang or understanding of figurative language? Not everything is black and white, Robots–especially language!

In some cases, there are cultural differences, where a word that is perfectly acceptable in one language is confusing or seemingly offensive in another. The “Lamb of God” was translated to “Seal pup of God” in Inuktitut (language of the Inuit in the Arctic) because this is what made sense culturally; religious zealots might regard such a translation as disrespectful sans the full context.

Other times, maybe a translator tries to take a shortcut with a cognate that is not actually a cognate, or a word that sounds similar in both languages: for example, in Spanish, famous and famoso both mean famous, but embarrassed is not embarazada [pregnant]. While embarrassment may be an unintended side effect of a misguided translation in social settings, real embarrassment sets in when it is part of a multi-million dollar marketing slogan… and serious fiscal consequences.

Or, on a more serious note, have you heard about the $71 million dollar word lawsuit? How about the “Do Nothing” campaign? See slideshow at the top of this page.

Poor translations can be anything from goofy to life-threatening (we have not even touched on interpreters on the battlefield), but in any event, hopefully we can agree that there is more to language than initially meets the eye. For a good read on this topic, check out the book: Found in Translation: How Language Shapes Our Lives and Transforms the World by Nataly Kelly and Jost Zetzsche… or surf the web.

Fun fact: in the aforementioned book, “Eva Aariak, Nunavut’s former languages commissioner (and later premier of Nunavut), chose the word [ikiaqqivik] as the Inuktitut translation for ‘Internet.’ It’s a traditional term that means ‘traveling through layers,’ and it refers to what a shaman does when he travels across time and space to find out about living or deceased relatives, ‘similar to how the net is used now,’ Julia adds” (32).

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