Common Mistakes in Translation

Posted on 09/26/12 in INDUSTRY NEWS, LANGUAGE, TRANSLATION, No Comments


Have you ever come across a situation like the following?

You’re travelling a foreign country where you are able to speak the language very well. When meeting people they might consider you fluent and this fills you with pride. But then, after a while of talking, there is this very sentence, only one little sentence you say, which reveals all…. That you’re not a local.

There are reasons why people employ professional translators and interpreters instead of doing the work on their own. Even if you call yourself a polyglot – someone who can communicate in more than one language without difficulties – you may still say things a native speaker wouldn’t say. And this is not your fault. 

It is very hard work to get rid of expressions that are typical in your native language, but sound odd when translated literally into a foreign language. As you use them everyday you may not even realise that they sound unnatural when translated literally. 

People who are working as professional translators or interpreters are aware of these tricky situations as they constantly stumble across these things during their work. We would like to show you some examples of common translation mistakes made by non native speakers of languages.

English – German

English and German belong to the same Germanic language family. This makes translation between the a lot easier – words are often spelled nearly the same (EN: house, GE: Haus) and grammatical constructions can often be used in the same way. However, there are situations where a word-by-word translation would be wrong even though it sounds good in your ear.

An example would be the little English word “so” that is often used to connect sentences as in “He was late so he missed the bus”. The word “so” exists in German as well, but it is used in a different context. Even though it sounds correct to connect sentences using “so” it sounds odd to a native speaker and it reveals that you German is not your mother tongue. Instead of saying „Er war spät, so hat er den Bus verpasst” you should rather go for „Er war spät, also hat er den Bus verpasst”.

This case shows how two letters can make the difference between a good and an excellent translation. It is important to note that this mistake does not only occur to German learners at beginner level, but also to intermediates and those who have been studying and working with German for years.

English – French

France has always been an important business partner for the English speaking world. For Irish and British companies who are cooperating with French companies it is essential to have a basic knowledge of French, especially Business French. However the following mistake can happen even to someone who is able to speak French to a sufficiently high level, when writing a Business letter in French.

In an English context you would usually start a letter with addressing someone with “Dear Sir or Madam”. The French equivalent for this phrase would be “Cher Monsieur ou Madame”. Still, a French person would be surprised to read the French word for “dear” at the beginning of a business letter. It is commonly used in a more protected context to show affection or gratitude. A French business letter would start with the phrase “Madame, Monsieur,” which sounds rather rough to an English speaker. It is also very important to address someone with his or her title if necessary (“Monsieur le Professeur”, “Madame la Directice”, “Monsieur le Maire”).

English – Japanese

When translating into Japanese there are numerous aspects you have to consider as the languages are as different as can be. Still, for professional translators who have good skills in both languages and who are aware of cultural differences it is possible to provide correct and accurate translations.

The Japanese language offers a large number of set phrases that can hardly be translated into any European language. In many cases these set phrases are a way to show respect or express politeness but when used in the wrong context they do not make any sense.

A set phrase that is commonly used is “Yoroshiku onegaishimasu”. Dictionaries often translate this as “Please take care of…” or as “Best regards”. How do we know which of these translations applies in our situation?

European business men have often tried to be polite and use a Japanese phrase in their business letters when addressing Japanese companies. It is a nice way to show interest in someone else’s culture as long as you use the phrase in the right way and avoid misunderstandings. If you would like to use “Yoroshiku onegaishimasu”, please consider that it also means “Please take care of…” or “I entrust you with taking care of…”. It may also be used as a greeting at the end of a letter. If you are for example ordering something from a Japanese supplier it does make a lot of sense to use this greeting. But please be aware of the fact that there is more not just one translation for a phrase like this one.

We hope this provided you a little insight into the work of translators and interpreters – even the smallest phrases need to be given consideration depending on the context of situations.


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