Horror Stories: The Impact of Bad Translation

Have you ever come across a badly translated menu while on holiday? Traditional Kaiserschmarrn Austrian pancakes billed as Emperor’s Nonsense or a Quattro Stagioni pizza mislabelled as Four Stations can certainly raise a smile. And in most cases, the consequences aren’t too serious. But what happens when communication goes wrong in more important situations?

Why you should never use Google Translate

Poor translation can damage your reputation

Imagine you’ve bought a brand-new coffee machine – one of those all-in-one appliances with an integrated milk steamer and wide variety of coffee choices. You unpack the machine, plug it in and read the instruction manual to find out what you need to do to get your delicious coffee. However, the instructions have clearly been translated by a machine, so they are completely unreadable and of absolutely no help to you. You’ve got to try a few things out before you finally get what you want: your beloved coffee. Regardless of how happy you were with the appliance, next time you’ll consider whether you’ll have to put that extra effort in again, because of the bad translation. And you would probably convince your friends not to buy one.

The list of possible translation mistakes really is a long one, from machine-translated manuals and ambiguous instructions that leave users perplexed to badly translated product names, clumsy wording on packaging, websites with broken links, or social media posts with inappropriate captions or mismatched images. The one thing they all have in common? They leave customers with a negative impression of your business and your brand.

Marketing-driven industries in particular invest a lot of time and money in making a positive impression on consumers. The keyword here? Customer experience. Poor-quality content can cause considerable damage to your reputation and even lead to a drop in sales. Who hasn’t closed the browser window out of frustration because you can’t find your way around the website? And just like that, the moment’s over; you’ve missed your chance.

This sort of negative impact on your reputation might not necessarily end up in court. In most cases, as soon as someone notices the bad translation, the company will fix the problem and hope for the best. But what about when actual damage is caused to people or property? For example, what if a technical error in a traffic light led to an accident in which someone was injured?

If it turns out in retrospect that the technical failure was due to a badly translated user manual, it may well end up in court. In such cases, you might receive financial compensation from the translator or the translation agency with whom you worked. But you’d still have to deal with the fallout: reputational damage and the potential loss of customers.

With this in mind, it’s interesting to note that many freelance translators want to protect themselves against situations like these but find it difficult to get themselves insured. It is especially difficult in the English-speaking world, and particularly in the US, as many insurance companies worry about expensive claims and consequently deny freelance translators appropriate professional indemnity insurance – or only offer it on completely unreasonable terms.

If the consequences are scary even to insurance companies, it might be best for you to avoid taking the risk and use a professional translation agency.

It can cost you money

Aside from legal costs and possible compensation payouts, a bad translation can cost you dearly without it going through the courts. Mistranslations in printed brochures might mean that you have to reprint thousands of new ones. This might even cost you more than the translation of the brochures in the first place. Paying a little more for a professional translation will spare you unforeseen additional expenses at a later stage.

But it’s not just these extra costs that could be the reason you lose money due to a mistranslation. After all, you can usually sue for these extra expenses if you can prove them, and they can clearly be attributed to a bad translation.

Imagine that you’ve ordered a German translation of your English press release. It’s urgent, because it’s all about the launch of your new product, which is happening tomorrow. You get the translation back the same evening. However, it doesn’t read very well. The headline doesn’t grab your attention and the technical information about your product isn’t quite right. So you spend all night correcting the text, so that you can send it to the press the following day. Not only is it annoying, but it has also taken up a lot of your time. And as everybody knows, time is money.

Real-life examples of problems faced by translators

Pajero: The car that nobody in Latin America wants to drive

One of the most famous examples, which is still a source of amusement for the entire translation industry, is that of a Japanese car manufacturer. Their model, named ‘Pajero’, didn’t really sell at all in Latin America. Why not? Because nobody at the company knew that in Latin American Spanish, ‘Pajero’ translates to a rather unflattering curse word, which doesn’t quite portray the SUV as something you’d be proud to drive around.

How Moses grew horns

Translation mistakes in the Bible? Yes, you read that right. They exist. 500 years ago, St Jerome translated the Bible from Hebrew into Latin. Since Hebrew is written without vowels, he made a mistake with the word ‘karan’, which means ‘halo’ and instead translated ‘keren’, which means ‘horns’. From this, Michelangelo created a statue of Moses that had horns, which you can still admire in Rome today. This isn’t the only work of art that depicts Moses with horns instead of a halo – all because the translator mixed up two vowel sounds without thinking about the cultural context.

Come in, dear customers… now leave.

You might have already heard of this next example. Do you know the slogan ‘Come in and find out’? A chain of German perfume stores used it in its adverts, only to be laughed at afterwards. The slogan can be translated as both ‘Come in and find out’ and ‘Come in and find your way out’. Since then, the famous retailer has stuck to German slogans. Better safe than sorry.

Even if you don’t translate product names, you need to check them.

A certain Swedish furniture store tried to tempt its customers with a picture of some delicious ‘Äppelkaka’, which is the name of a Swedish apple pie. When left untranslated in German, it refers to horse droppings instead, which was a source of amusement among German customers. However, they had less of a sense of humour about the toilet brush named ‘Virus’. What does this tell us? Even if you don’t translate product names, it’s still always worth checking that they don’t have unintended or unfortunate meanings in other languages.

How do you overcome translation problems?

You’ve heard all the horror stories, but now for the happy ending. These mistakes are easy to avoid, as long as you choose reputable and professional translation services. Professional providers know that mistakes like the ones mentioned in this article are unacceptable and will do everything in their power to avoid them. Make sure that the translation provider is qualified, and only uses translators who work into their native language. At Planet Languages we know the value of a good translation, and our expert team know that you only have one chance to get it right.