You’ve probably experienced something like it before: You’re on vacation and sitting in a restaurant in which there are several mistranslations on the English menu. An appetizer best described as “bacon-wrapped dates” might quickly become the rather mysterious “ham girdled trysts.” Such surprises on the menu are almost part of the experience when you’re on vacation, and the hilarious translations are often photographed and shared with friends. The phenomenon is so widespread that entire Facebook groups now specialize in drawing attention to such hysterically bad translations.
While we are quite happy to turn a blind eye to translation errors in this context, mistranslations in other areas can have much more serious repercussions and can quickly cost a great deal of money. Such errors are not only embarrassing but can harm the reputation of an enterprise and lead to reduced sales. The most recent prominent example: Facebook`s just published new name "Meta" is very similar to the Hebrew word for "dead". Unfortunately, Facebook is not the only company that made such translation-mistakes,
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Bad and incorrect translations are funny – but they can also be expensive and risky for businesses.
Translation errors happen even to the big names
For example, some time ago Coca-Cola marketed its popular drink in China as “Kekoukela,” which means “female horse stuffed with wax.” Beverage bottler Schweppes also made a bad choice when an advertising campaign in Italy included a translation for “Schweppes Tonic Water” that made people think they would be buying “Schweppes Toilet Water.” In 2013, banking services company HSBC had to spend some €12 million on a complete rebranding after its straightforward slogan of “Assume Nothing” was mistranslated as “Do Nothing” in some countries.
But it’s not only private enterprises that are affected by poor translations. Mistranslations become a deadly serious matter when people’s futures are on the line: An investigation by German newspaper “Die Zeit” published in 2017 demonstrated how incorrect decisions were made in asylum applications submitted to Germany’s Federal Office for Migration and Refugees due to factors that included mistranslations. Asylum attorneys and judges reported “shockingly bad translations,” with the primary reason for this being that the individuals completing the translations were not sworn translators and instead were chosen primarily for their low prices.
These examples make it clear that there are two dimensions of risk associated with poor translations: economic risk and legal or safety-related risk.
Poor translations cause economic, legal & security risks.
Poor translations as a business risk
To put it in a nutshell, bad translations are bad for business. The examples of Coca-Cola and HSBC demonstrate how devastating translation errors can be in the context of marketing campaigns. Such errors make it necessary for companies to not only spend vast sums of money on new campaigns but also to contend with the associated reputational damage.
Errors in titles or descriptions of products in online shops can also result in lost sales. If the texts are of poor quality, people may find it difficult to trust the shop – which in many cases will drive them to purchase from the competition. If you think back to your own experience, it’s likely the case that you’ve previously searched for a product online but didn’t make the purchase because the product description wasn’t good.
When we are shopping online, we as users have very little evidence at hand by which we can judge product quality. We are forced to rely on the images, texts, and product reviews in front of us. If any of these three components seems somewhat suspicious to us, our alarm bells start to go off.
For this reason, it cannot be repeated often enough how important good translations are for the customer experience and for transforming potential customers into actual ones. We should probably mention that this also applies to the texts in the source language – but we will provide more information on this topic later.
The better the text, the greater the chance of converting potential customers into actual ones. And this applies to all languages!
Legal and security risks
In addition to the business risks associated with poor translations, legal and security risks also play a key role. Examples of such risks would include incorrect descriptions in the instructions that accompany machines. Incorrect translations of annual reports can cause readers to misinterpret the business data. When this happens, it is even possible for the valuation of a company to be falsified.
Errors in the documentation of a product subject to duties can cause difficulties during the customs clearance process. This can lead to delays in delivery, which in turn can increase costs, damage the company’s reputation, or be associated with other negative impacts.
Regardless of what industry you are in, one bad translation is enough to set off a veritable avalanche of unwanted events.
How much money do translation errors actually cost?
Because very few companies like to share information about the consequences of the business mistakes they have made, the additional costs of bad translations cannot be easily quantified. Nevertheless, a few clues exist as to the true extent of the damage:
In 2005, the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Education and Culture commissioned a study to be carried out by the National Centre for Languages (CILT). The primary objective of the study was to conduct research in regard to data and analysis of foreign language skills in small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) as well as their impact on business. In the study entitled “ELAN: Effects on the European Economy of Shortages of Foreign Language Skills in Enterprise,” 195 of the approximately 2000 companies surveyed stated that they had “missed out on actual or potential export contracts directly due to a lack of foreign language skills.”
The majority (63%) of the 195 affected companies claimed that they had suffered business losses due to a lack of staff with foreign language skills. However, it is also interesting to note that 4% of SMEs recorded losses due to errors in translations or interpreting.
Companies missed out on contracts worth €840,000 due to poor-quality translations.
Of the 195 SMEs mentioned above, just 37 companies also specifically indicated the extent of the business losses. Across all categories, these losses totaled some €10 million (an average of around €270,270 per company). The 4% mentioned above therefore corresponds to €400,000 of these total losses due to mistranslations – which would be €10,810 per company.
An additional 54 companies specified that they had lost out on potential contracts worth some €21 million. The share of this overall figure due to mistranslations would be €840,000.
While such losses may not seem alarming at first glance, let us briefly engage in a thought experiment in which we estimate the approximate magnitude of these losses:
The Bonn Institute for SME Research examined the degree of internationalization of SMEs between 2009 and 2011. Even back then, roughly 1.3 million companies (99% of them SMEs) were internationally active, corresponding to 37% of the companies in Germany.
If we combine the results of the two studies (€10,810 per company for a total of 1.3 million internationally active companies), faulty translations could have already cost the German economy a total of some €14 billion (with the loss of potential contracts not included in this calculation!).
Bad translations could have already cost the German economy some €14 billion.
The reasons for bad translations and how to avoid them
Translations can be bad for a wide variety of reasons. Here is a list of the most common causes of incorrect translations and what you can do about them.
1. You translate the same texts over and over again
Companies often use identical sentences or descriptions in several different documents. This leads to a major risk that the text will be translated differently and that mistakes will be made in each case. It’s a good idea to save these translations and use them again. Translation memories (TMs) are databases in which translations are saved on a sentence-by-sentence basis. The great advantage here is that the translators have access to these memories for subsequent projects, allowing them to provide consistent translations and significantly reducing the risk of error.
The reasons why translation errors occur are complex, and even small optimizations can have a big impact.
2. You don’t have uniform corporate terminology
In some texts, it doesn’t matter whether a certain word or its synonym is used. This is the case in marketing texts, in which a certain amount of variety is useful or even desirable if only to optimize the text for search engines. However, uniform terminology is important in the vast majority of cases in order to prevent negative consequences such as those cited in the examples above. A terminology database (TB) that is kept up to date can make a great contribution to translation quality.
3. You don’t use specialist translators
The professional title of “translator” is not protected in any way. For this reason, it is unfortunately the case that there a large number of unqualified translators on the market whose quality of work is poor. You therefore need to exercise due care in choosing your translation partners – whether they are translation agencies or individual freelance translators.
4. You don’t provide enough information to the translators
Translations are all about context. If translators don’t have enough additional information about the product or service, they may not be able to translate the text very well. You should therefore provide them with access to relevant knowledge and informational material: style guides, previously translated documents in the final layout, corporate presentations, videos, manuals, and so on. Depending on the difficulty, scope, and nature of the job, translators may need more or less reference material.
Translation memory and terminology databases are also part of the process, of course, but documents in the final layout are sometimes more useful. Translators can thus get a better idea of what a particular topic is about.
What is like hitting the jackpot for every translator is when they are provided with a personal contact person at the company who can respond to technical questions. You should also discuss this with your service providers if they work with translation agencies.
5. You make arbitrary use of machine translation
We’ve already written a great deal about machine translation in this blog, so we won’t be going into much detail here. By now it should be clear to everyone that companies can save time and money by using machine translation – but only if it is used correctly and in combination with post-editing. You can read more about this topic in the articles “Machine Translation for Companies” and “Post-editing: Better quality for machine translation.”
6. The source texts contain errors
If you are reading this, you are well aware of how important good content is. It’s all the more astonishing that many source texts continue to be poorly written or even contain errors, in some cases quite serious ones (such as when the texts are not authored by native speakers). When faced with such problematic source texts, translators will struggle to deliver a text that is flawless in terms of content. The situation is only exacerbated if there are no contact persons to turn to in the company. You should therefore ensure that your source texts are free of errors, consistent, and easy to understand right from the start – your translators will thank you for it!
How to assess the quality of translations
If you have a text translated by 10 different people, you will get 10 different versions of the translation. Language features a great deal of diversity, which is why assessing the quality of a translation is often based on subjective criteria. Professional translators can spend hours discussing what translation of a text is “best.” Each individual has their own style.
Nevertheless, there are also objective criteria for assessing translation quality. To get really good translations, you should take a closer look at quality management services when choosing a language service provider. Pay particular attention to compliance with DIN EN ISO 17100. Although this alone is no guarantee of good translations, it at least tells you that the language service provider has implemented a sound translation process that includes quality management. We have compiled more information on this topic in the article “Be Careful When Choosing a Language Service Provider.”
The Federal Association of Interpreters and Translators also offers extensive information for customers, including a database of qualified translators, explanations of how orders are placed and processed, pricing details, and more.
The bottom line
Translations are one of the cornerstones of modern society, without which it would be impossible for businesses to expand and operate internationally. However, it is unfortunately the case that translations are often not given the attention they deserve. It’s time for this to change, because bad translations are ultimately much more expensive than relying on competent translation partners and the right technology from the very beginning.
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