Translation errors: what are they? And how to avoid them?

When can we say that a translation is “incorrect”? There are few possible translation errors and usually they are fairly obvious.

A translation is considered wrong when the translator (human being or machine) renders an altered message in the target language or omits concepts or details. In general, the problem concerns a single phrase or term but it can generate chain errors that spread like wildfire throughout the text. To find translation errors you need to read and understand both the source and target text, and compare them: by reading only the translation, it is impossible to tell whether it is correct or not. The responsibility in such cases may lie with the translator (insufficient understanding of the language, inexperience) but also with the person who wrote the source text if this is ambiguous and confusing. Another possible cause is distraction: this is why a careful revision of all translations is essential as well as a reasonable timeframe for the project to be executed.

Other translation errors may concern terminology, when terms specific to a specialist field are rendered with an inappropriate translation. Again, mistakes are prevented by choosing specialised translators and clarifying your project requirements from the outset.

Translation errors end here.

However, there are many more possible quality issues in a translation:

  • Spelling and typing, grammar or syntax errors in the target language. Not translation errors but linguistic errors due to a low level of competence in the target language and/or poor revision.
  • Lack of fluidity in the target language, awkward phrases that don’t “sound” right. This is typical of translations done by non-professionals or inexperienced translators, who usually are too faithful to the source text, but also of machine translation. An issue that makes the text appear unprofessional and lacking in authority.
  • Inconsistency, in other words, lack of uniformity with other texts previously translated for the same company, or even within the same text. This happens due to lack of attention but also because of poor communication between the customer and translator, or when several translation service providers are used: in this case company glossaries need to be compiled and steps taken to ensure that translators and customers are aligned with regard to terminology choices.
  • An ineffective translation, that does not achieve the effect intended for the source text (that of convincing, selling, stipulating).
  • Failure to render humor, idiomatic expressions and plays on words which, when translated literally, convey no message to the reader or at worst, are incomprehensible and ridiculous. Again, the translator’s experience and communication with the customer make all the difference.
  • A lack of respect for the original tone of voice, which must be maintained in the translation: it is important for the translator to receive instructions in this regard.
  • Personal taste: someone may not like a translation. People with advanced skills in a foreign language are able to capture nuances, which may or not be to their taste. There are often various ways of expressing a concept, all equally valid. Native-speaking professionals are able to give reasons for their choices and advise on the best rendering possible.

When in doubt about a translation, ask independent professionals for a quality assessment. A sound evaluation will consider specific points: it will highlight single issues and analyse the tone, style, readability, choices of terminology, length and construction of sentences and any other requirements of the text.


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