7 Rules to Avoid Translation Mistakes


Foreign language translation service

This blog will provide you with everything you need to know to avoid translation mistakes.

Dr. Doris MacKenzie was traveling to China on a Fulbright Scholarship as a visiting professor from the University of Maryland.  Needing some research documents translated, she turned to her bi-lingual research associate to translate the documents.

People who are fully bi-lingual but not trained translators usually make one of two mistakes, they literally translate the document and miss the meaning of the copy or they change the meaning of the original document to better suit their own agenda.

The Meaning Changes

Next, Doris asked another one of her Chinese associates to back translate (take the documents from the translated Chinese back into English) so she could "check" quality. Back translating is a bit like the children's game "whisper down the alley". The meaning changes through the different iterations. Luckily in this case, the back translation clearly illuminated that the translation really did not match the English, at all.

She had a Chinese translation that did not accurately capture her original English version. Now, Dr. MacKenzie felt it was time to turn to a translation firm to ask how to proceed.

Once the original English documents were turned over to the translation professionals they found that the associate had taken many liberties with the translation to make it, in the associate's words, "more appropriate" for the Chinese culture.

Have a Consistent Voice

Many people do not realize that translation takes as much time as writing. As a general rule, allow time for the translation of 1,000 words per day. Even though it can be done faster, this allows for quality work and review. If time is limited, the translation can be divided into multiple sections for multiple people to work on it. But, as in writing, when various authors write different parts, the tone and the style vary. In translation, this is the same. For a written project, it is easier for a reader to have consistent voice.

When the translator needs clarification on the meaning of the copy, it is helpful for the client to be available. This keeps the project moving and the translation accurate.

If you are consistent with who you use, the provider can anticipate your needs. Also, if you ever make changes to an already completed translation, the provider will have archives. Good translators and agencies keep archives of all projects. Tracking edits on the original source document can save quite a bit of money on translation expenses.

Read more in our Essential Guide to Translating Marketing Materials.

Rules Apply to All

Although the example here demonstrates issues that a university professor encountered in research, the same rules apply to business translations no matter what the languages.

When translating materials, it is especially important to accurately capture the message to make sure your product or service is represented correctly across all markets.

No matter whether you are in education, international marketing, legal, HR or finance, these 7 rules are guidelines for anyone managing translations;

  • Rule #1 - Hire a trained translator to retain the meaning of your document.
  • Rule #2 -For good quality, hire another trained translator to edit the translation. Translation is like writing, two sets of good eyes on the project are better than one.
  • Rule #3 - Translators should make recommendations on changes to the copy, but should NOT take the initiative on their own, especially if it changes the meaning.
  • Rule #4 - Use internal bi-lingual personnel to review professionally done translations for a final quality check and to make sure subject matter is accurate.
  • Rule #5 - Schedule in advance to avoid divide-and-conquer translation.
  • Rule #6 - Make yourself available for questions.
  • Rule #7 - Establish a relationship with the translation provider.


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Categories: Problems & Solutions, Quality


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