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How to minimize translation errors

How to minimize translation errorsThis guest post is contributed by Paul Hench, who writes on the topic of master in public health programs. He welcomes your comments at his email: paul.23hench ~at~ gmail.com.

How often have you found that the text you're reading has been "lost in translation"? You know that things are not as they should be because you're fluent in the language you're reading, and it's obvious to you that the translator has made more than a few mistakes.

Translation errors are so common because it's difficult to find the right people for the job who are equally fluent in both the source and the target language. For translation to be perfect and error-free, the person doing the job must:

  • Understand the usage of words in the source language: Certain languages use the same word to mean different things depending on the context in which they are used. For example, in English, the word "left" can be used in so many ways, as can many other words in the language. Unless the translator is fluent in the source language and understands the meaning of the words in the context they're used, there's going to be a whole lot of mistakes.
  • Know the difference in syntax between both languages: It's not just enough to know the meanings of words in both the source and target languages, you have to be familiar with and fluent in the syntactical structure of sentences as well. Most people may know the language colloquially, but when they're asked to write, they stumble with the right syntax. And if the two languages have vastly different syntax structure, the translation is even more difficult unless you're able read the source, understand the meaning, think out the sentences in the target language, and then put them down in the right syntax.
  • Read the source text carefully: Many translators make mistakes because they're in too much of a hurry to read the source text carefully. They misread certain words which have different meanings when a letter is either removed or added – like reading the word friend as fried or vice versa – and end up making mistakes in the translation as well.
  • Understand the source text completely before attempting to translate: Although some texts can be translated sentence by sentence, most translations must be done paragraph by paragraph. It's up to the translator to fully understand what has been said in the paragraph and then translate it into the target language. The sentences in the translated text may be completely different from that in the source text, but they must convey the same meaning.
Translation errors can be minimized by getting the right person for the job, someone who is not only fluent and well-versed in both languages, but who is also careful and precise when doing the job.

ForeignExchange's METRiQ quality system provides medical device and pharmaceutical companies with known translation quality - on every technical translation assignment.


  1. Zachary Overline said...
    These are all good suggestions. I'd argue, however, that not all translators have these options, given certain time and money constraints, which are directly a result of their treatment by some LSPs.

    Here is a good example posted recently about why translators don't always have the option to take these well-meant suggestions listed above: http://bit.ly/dzUIc0
    OscarVil said...
    I consider that if the translator does not have these options he/she should inform to the LSP what can he/she do in the given time and accept that he/she will do a mediocre job. In that way he/she will avoid the situation where the LSP come back to him/her complaining about a poor translation quality after accepting a very tight deadline where he/she didn't have the time to follow the suggestions to reduce translation errors.
    Jeff said...
    I agree. The project manager at the LSP must assign the most suitable translator for each translation. Based on my experience, assignment of an inadequate translator is the reason for most of the poor quality translations
    Sam said...
    I totally agree you have to understand the source to translate it well. Context is everything.
    French Translation said...
    Nice post! And I agree with Sam, context is everything!
    MatthewOfHamburg said...
    A problem in German-to-English is people down the line attempting to improve a text by touching up the English themselves, though they do not have (full) command of English. This compounds problems of liability when errors are made because the word price is too low (encouraging speed, jacking error rate) or the delivery schedule accommodates the creator of the text to the disadvantage of the translator (making the translator feel discriminated, faceless). There is no price which is too low if all parties are honestly willing to share the consequences equally among themselves, including housing and rent issues. Well said Zachary Overline.
    Anonymous said...
    And what happens when the original is illigible? How do you translate a document that doesn't even make sense?
    MatthewOfHamburg said...
    If you are independent, nobody forced you to accept a job which involves translating unintelligble content. Content must be reviewed or enough spot checks done before agreeing to a job - agreeing to it blind is at the supplier's risk. Though a completely undoable task can probably be justifiably sent back to have it made "intelligible."

    It works both ways: you state that quality is poor before starting and ask to have it improved - or your extra effort rewarded. Conversely, the customer has the right to send passages back which are "not a correct translation" to have it remedied. Sounds fair, doesn't it?
    Oliver Lawrence said...
    These are all such screamingly basic, fundamental points that frankly it alarms me that they are even the subject for discussion. Essentially: 1) if, as a provider, you are not competent, you should not be offering paid translation services, and 2) if, as a commissioner, you insist on the cheapest possible translation then you will get rubbish. The solution is of course to source a qualified, professional translator, such as a member of professional translation association like the Institute of Linguists. It is not hard to find good translators if you really want to.

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