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  1. The importance of good translation is most obvious when things go wrong. Here are nine examples from the book that show just how high-stakes the job of translation can be.


    In 1980, 18-year-old Willie Ramirez was admitted to a Florida hospital in a comatose state. His friends and family tried to describe his condition to the paramedics and doctors who treated him, but they only spoke Spanish. Translation was provided by a bilingual staff member who translated “intoxicado” as “intoxicated.” A professional interpreter would have known that “intoxicado” is closer to “poisoned” and doesn’t carry the same connotations of drug or alcohol use that “intoxicated” does. Ramirez’s family believed he was suffering from food poisoning. He was actually suffering from an intracerebral hemorrhage, but the doctors proceeded as if he were suffering from an intentional drug overdose, which can lead to some of the symptoms he displayed. Because of the delay in treatment, Ramirez was left quadriplegic. He received a malpractice settlement of $71 million.


    When President Carter traveled to Poland in 1977, the State Department hired a Russian interpreter who knew Polish, but was not used to interpreting professionally in that language. Through the interpreter, Carter ended up saying things in Polish like “when I abandoned the United States” (for “when I left the United States”) and “your lusts for the future” (for “your desires for the future”), mistakes that the media in both countries very much enjoyed.


    At the height of the cold war, Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev gave a speech in which he uttered a phrase that interpreted from Russian as “we will bury you.” It was taken as chilling threat to bury the U.S. with a nuclear attack and escalated the tension between the U.S. and Russia. However, the translation was a bit too literal. The sense of the Russian phrase was more that “we will live to see you buried” or “we will outlast you.” Still not exactly friendly, but not quite so threatening.


    In 2009, HSBC bank had to launch a $10 million rebranding campaign to repair the damage done when its catchphrase “Assume Nothing” was mistranslated as “Do Nothing” in various countries.


    A panic in the world’s foreign exchange market led the U.S. dollar to plunge in value after a poor English translation of an article by Guan Xiangdong of the China News Service zoomed around the Internet. The original article was a casual, speculative overview of some financial reports, but the English translation sounded much more authoritative and concrete.


    St. Jerome, the patron saint of translators, studied Hebrew so he could translate the Old Testament into Latin from the original, instead of from the third century Greek version that everyone else had used. The resulting Latin version, which became the basis for hundreds of subsequent translations, contained a famous mistake. When Moses comes down from Mount Sinai his head has “radiance” or, in Hebrew, “karan.” But Hebrew is written without the vowels, and St. Jerome had read “karan” as “keren,” or “horned.” From this error came centuries of paintings and sculptures of Moses with horns and the odd offensive stereotype of the horned Jew.


    In the 50s, when chocolate companies began encouraging people to celebrate Valentine’s Day in Japan, a mistranslation from one company gave people the idea that it was customary for women to give chocolate to men on the holiday. And that’s what they do to this day. On February 14, the women of Japan shower their men with chocolate hearts and truffles, and on March 14 the men return the favor. An all around win for the chocolate companies!


    In the Japanese video game Street Fighter II a character says, “if you cannot overcome the Rising Dragon Punch, you cannot win!” When this was translated from Japanese into English, the characters for “rising dragon” were interpreted as “Sheng Long.” The same characters can have different readings in Japanese, and the translator, working on a list of phrases and unaware of the context, thought a new person was being introduced to the game. Gamers went crazy trying to figure out who this Sheng Long was and how they could defeat him. In 1992, as an April Fools Day joke, Electronic Gaming Monthly published elaborate and difficult to execute instructions for how to find Sheng Long. It wasn’t revealed as a hoax until that December, after countless hours had no doubt been wasted.


    In 1840, the British government made a deal with the Maori chiefs in New Zealand. The Maori wanted protection from marauding convicts, sailors, and traders running roughshod through their villages, and the British wanted to expand their colonial holdings. The Treaty of Waitangi was drawn up and both sides signed it. But they were signing different documents. In the English version, the Maori were to “cede to Her Majesty the Queen of England absolutely and without reservation all the rights and powers of Sovereignty.” In the Maori translation, composed by a British missionary, they were not to give up sovereignty, but governance. They thought they were getting a legal system, but keeping their right to rule themselves. That’s not how it turned out, and generations later the issues around the meaning of this treaty are still being worked out.


    A good translator needs to be responsive. Translators are well aware that in this field, we face challenges such as tight deadlines, last-minute textual changes or additions, etc. A good translator will quickly adapt to these changes and follow the new instructions. She remains focused on the final goal, which is a high-quality translation.

    A paragraph needs to be added? Good, we actually felt something was missing. You have an updated version? That’s okay – we didn’t care for the previous one anyway. The deadline is Thursday night instead of Friday morning? No problem, we’ll rearrange our schedule to make it work. As part of your job, you probably have many tasks and responsibilities, and a good translator will adapt to your needs and rhythm, so you can stay focused on your core activities.

    A good translator is meticulous and can work fast, within a reasonable timeframe of course. No translator can deliver her translation…yesterday (although we’re working on that!)

    She will tap into her general cultural knowledge and solid research and language skills to focus her efforts where it matters most, i.e. transferring the meaning of the original text into the desired target language in a seamless, high-quality way. For example, she might research a difficult technical concept, or spend time finding the right adaptation of a humorous expression.

    A good translator shouldn’t have to ask dozens of questions on your content. She shouldn’t engage in pointless research or worse, research leading to the wrong interpretation of your text; nor will she need to browse through numerous grammar guides to write properly. A professional has already mastered these skills; this is why she can translate fast and accurately.

    Here’s a scenario: you ask your translator to deliver a document by Friday morning, but she decides that rather than working on it, she needs to catch up on the latest adventures of Pepe’s obese cat… which take about five hours to recount. There may be significant repercussions on your business if you promised that translated document to an excellent potential hire, an impatient client, or your boss, who needs to sign it before boarding a plane to Hawaii (the lucky …guy). A good translation service and translator will respect all reasonable deadlines, because they understand the impact it can have on your business activities and your clients.

    Moreover, if she considers your deadline to be unrealistic, a good translator will not hesitate to negotiate a different one. She will make sure you both agree on an acceptable deadline; failing that, she can help you find another solution, rather than deliver your document late and disappoint you.

    Be wary of a translator that promises you that her unparalleled skills and her supreme intelligence will prevent her from ever making a mistake. No one is immune from a typo; everyone can be distracted during the day, whether by the grumpy mailman, a colleague experiencing an existential crisis or, worst of all, the death of the coffee maker. There are many basic tools – such as Grammarly – to do a final proofread of the spelling and grammar in a document. Once she has completed her translation, a good translator will usually let the document sit for a while, then come back to it later for proofreading. She will likely always find something to improve or correct.

    We often hear people say something like: “I spent four months in Quebec City when I was 15, so I am totally competent to translate into French”. Ha! Speaking a language is no guarantee a person can translate into it. A good translator will typically translate into her mother tongue. She knows cultural distinctions and regional expressions, and can provide a seamless and natural-sounding translation. Not surprisingly, it is rare for a translator to translate into several languages, and thus it is necessary, in case of multilingual requirements, to rely on multilingual service providers. In a high-quality translation, the underlying translation process is undetectable. Rather, it naturally showcases the message in the target language; the reader should feel like the text was initially written in that language.

    Furthermore, a competent translator should have mastered her language from the very start. You don’t learn to write well while working as a translator; mastery of the written target language and an excellent understanding of the original language are prerequisites for a good translation. So, a short stay in a foreign country may not be enough to make you a good translator, even if it does you good in other ways!

    Translating your content is critically important to your reputation and the success of a potential expansion into new markets. Therefore, it’s crucial that you make sure your translator meets or exceeds your clients’ expectations as well as your own. She must be responsive, work quickly and optimize her time, be humble and excel in her language.

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