A few months ago, I was catching up with a friend and her boyfriend over dinner in central London. During our conversation, he shared a recent story which illustrates the consequences of using an automatic translator for important documents.
J works for a medium-size IT company based in London. The company had been in talks with a prospective client from Russia about a promising project. When the time of confirming the project arrived, Mr Boss asked J to send the contract to the client for him to sign.
When opening the document, J noticed the contract was in English, and raised the issue. He suggested contacting a professional translator to get it translated, but Mr Boss quickly rejected the idea saying ‘I have neither the time nor the money for that. Just run it through Google Translate and send it to the client. We need it signed ASAP’. And so, he unwillingly did.
‘I sent the contract and the Russians were like “WTF. This doesn’t make any sense. We’re not signing this”. I told Mr Boss, but he seemed to have already given up on the client, event after all the hard work negotiating with them!’
There you have it – a company losing a big contract for not providing a professional translation of an important document. Not only did they lose a client, but also credibility, money and everyone’s time.
Mr Boss is an English-only speaker, and he obviously couldn’t tell whether the translation was ok, bad or terrible. Hopefully he learnt the hard way and thinks twice before using telling people to use automatic translation again. However, there are many other monolingual Mr Bosses out there losing contracts because of a similar linguistic gaffe.
Most of my colleagues will agree that monolingual clients are the hardest to convince about the advantages of using professional translation services. Many clients think there is an equivalent word in other languages for every word in English. Many don’t understand why a translation may be much longer than the original text, or why punctuation rules aren’t the same across all languages. Or why automatic translation is such a terrible thing.
Here are two examples to better illustrate what automatic translation can do to your texts and why you should’nt use automatic translation for important documents.
Example 1: Terms of service
Source: ICR Translations website
Standard translations will be charged per word in the source text. Sworn translations will be charged per page of the source document. Creative texts (such as slogans) will be charged per hour of work. Content writing will be charged either per word or per hour of work.
New clients will be required to pay 50% of the total amount up front, which will not be reimbursed. The Translator will not start working on the project until the payment has been received.
If, moreover, The Client is subject to the 50% upfront payment and he/she cancels the project once it has been confirmed in writing and The Translator has already started working on it, the upfront payment will not be reimbursed.
Automatic translation into Spanish
Las traducciones estándar se cobrará por palabra en el texto original. Las traducciones juradas se cobrará por página del documento de origen. textos creativos (como consignas) se cobrará por hora de trabajo. Contenido de la escritura será cargado ya sea por palabra o por hora de trabajo.
Se requerirán nuevos clientes para pagar el 50% del importe total por adelantado, el cual no será reembolsado. El traductor no comenzará a trabajar en el proyecto hasta que el pago se haya recibido.
Si, por otra parte, el cliente está sujeta al pago por adelantado del 50% y que él / ella se cancela el proyecto una vez que se ha confirmado por escrito y el traductor ya ha comenzado a trabajar en él, no se reembolsará el pago por adelantado.
What Google Translate did to the text:
The translated version includes mistakes of all kind.
In Spanish, if a noun is singular form, any related article, adjective or verb must also be in singular form. However, the automatic translator doesn’t seem to know this.
Las traducciones juradas se cobrará por página […]
las traducciones juradas se cobrarán por página […]
In Spanish, if a noun is feminine, any related article, adjective or verb must also be in feminine form. The automatic translator doesn’t seem to know this either.
Si, por otra parte, el cliente está sujeta al pago […]
Si, por otra parte, el cliente está sujeto al pago […]
Changes of meaning
Sometimes, automatic translators simply make things up.
New clients will be required to pay 50% of the total amount up front
has been translated as
Se requerirán nuevos clientes para pagar el 50% del importe total por adelantado
The Spanish translation implies the translator needing new clients in order [for him/her]to pay 50% of the total amount up front.
The automatic translator ignored the rule by which in Spanish symbols are separated by the preceding element by a space.
Therefore, pago por adelantado del 50% should be pago por adelantado del 50 %
Changes to verb tenses
Automatic translators sometimes choose the wrong verbal tense, because, you know, it’s fun to mix up tenses and change the meaning of the whole thing or create something which doesn’t make sense.
and he/she cancels the project
y que él / ella se cancela el proyecto
which actually says:
and he/she it is cancelled the project
The word consigna in Spanish refers to a political slogan, not a marketing/advertising slogan (which is simply eslogan). Moreover, consigna also means cloakroom or left-luggage room. As you can see, this can create a bit of confusion.
Example 2: Contract of employment
The Employee acknowledges that the Company may at any time deduct from his basic salary, or such other amounts as may be owed to the Employee, any sums that may be owed by the Employee to any Group Company including, but not limited to, overpayment of annual leave, unauthorised expenses and outstanding loans.
Upon the termination of the Employment the Employee shall be entitled to be paid in lieu of all accrued but untaken holiday to which he is entitled.
Spanish automatic translation
El Empleado reconoce que la Compañía podrá, en cualquier momento deducir de su sueldo base, o de cualquier otra cantidad que pueden existir con relación a la de los empleados, las sumas que pueden ser debidas por el empleado a cualquier empresa del grupo incluyendo, pero no limitado a, pago en exceso de vacaciones anuales, los gastos no autorizados y los préstamos pendientes.
Tras la terminación del Empleo el empleado tendrá derecho a recibir, en lugar de todas las vacaciones devengadas y no disfrutadas a la que tiene derecho.
What the automatic translator did to the text
Change of meaning
Original: or such other amounts as may be owed to the Employee
Spanish: o de cualquier otra cantidad que pueden existir con relación a la de los empleados
What the Spanish version says:
or from such other amounts that may exist in relation to those of the employees
The expression including, but not limited to has been mistranslated by incluyendo, pero no limitado a, which does not make much sense in Spanish.
The options for correctly translating the expression are tales como or entre otros.
Termination has also been mistranslated. In legal Spanish, the term used to refer to the termination of a contract varies, depending on how the contract is terminated – extinción (general meaning), resolución (something happened signing the contract) or rescisión (by law).
Summary of all the lovely things automatic translation did to these documents:
- It changed singular forms into plural forms, or the other way around.
- It changed feminine forms into masculine forms, or the other way around.
- It completely changed the meaning of some sentences.
- It used punctuation marks incorrectly.
- It changed verb tenses, which caused mistranslations.
- It mistranslated specialised (legal) terminology.
Other things automatic translation commonly does:
- Not changing formats (italics, bold, capitals).
- Translating word by word, which results in sentences that don’t make much sense.
- Not spotting mistakes and typos in the original text. It attempts to translate them, with terrible results.
- Translating things it shouldn’t, such as certain abbreviations or people’s names.
Now ask yourself:
Is the risk of losing credibility, trust, reputation and even clients worth it?
Irene Corchado Resmella, a Spanish translator based in Edinburgh. English-Spanish sworn translator appointed by the Spanish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Chartered Linguist and member of the CIOL. As a legal translator, I focus on Private Client law, specialising in Wills and Succession across three jurisdictions (England & Wales, Spain, and Scotland). Affiliate member of STEP. ICR Translations is registered with the ICO and has professional indemnity insurance.