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  • Writer's pictureSijin Xian

Think Translation Is Easy? These Mistakes Beg to Differ

In my recent presentation at the 63rd annual conference of the American Translators Association, I discussed four cornerstones of viewer experience in audiovisual translation. With accurate translation being the first point I highlighted, I shared three types of translation issues I typically see as a quality controller. In this post, I'll explore these with specific examples so you can get a sense of the tricky pitfalls in translation and appreciate why it's vital to work with skilled translators for your texts.

Mistranslations hide in plain sight

Some glaring mistakes escape detection when translators are on autopilot or not fully engaged with context. My favorite example is the simple expression "I don't know." This is one of the first phrases we acquired when learning English as a second language, and this could be the problem! The primary usage of "I don't know," meaning I don't have the knowledge or information, can be so ingrained in translators that they can't entertain the possibility of it having a second usage. Yet frequently in everyday speech, "I don't know" is used to signal uncertainty, hesitation, or disagreement.

Other examples of this kind of knee-jerk mistranslations I've seen include "effectively"—which can also mean "in effect" besides "in a productive or desirable way"; "implicit"—when we talk about implicit trust, it means absolute, not implied; "sensitive"—a sensitive person can be either easily offended or considerate of other people's feelings; and "righteous"—no, a righteous chocolate croissant has no moral value. So the next time you think anyone who "speaks English" can translate your text, think again. It takes a refined understanding of the language to not fall into the traps of these common mistakes.

Hidden messages uncaptured

When reviewing subtitle translation work, I've also noticed a genuine difficulty with understanding social or cultural nuances among some translators. Notably, one translated the expression "playing for the other team" literally as sports team allegiance instead of the intended reference of one's sexuality. I have seen the expression "good morning to you, too" rendered as a morning greeting, instead of a sarcastic tease implying the other person did not greet them properly. When a child got sent home from school, a translator misunderstood this to mean somebody escorted them home, rather than that the student is ordered to leave.

What proves to be even more of a struggle is comedy. Understanding humor is often seen as the ultimate test for someone's language proficiency because "school English" won't cover all the cultural references and linguistic nuances that are packed in a joke. Sensitivity to the more arcane side of the language takes a lot of hard work, and the ability to taste the flavor of a word is crucial to truly understanding author intent, which is the fundamental first step of accurate translation.

Unnaturally translated

Have you heard of the joke that being “bilingual” can become “bye-lingual” if you are not careful? Speaking two languages is like soaking in crisscrossing rivers, with your brain picking up vocabulary, expressions, and patterns from both directions. Then you might start mixing languages, forgetting words, or losing some sensibilities of what sounds natural and idiomatic. For example, while it's customary in English to say "viewers at home," we actually say "viewers in front of the television" in Chinese. And as you can tell, it would be equally awkward to render the Chinese phrase literally into English.

One of the challenges in translation is being able to mentally build a dam and control how the two rivers interact with each other. You would want exposure to both sources to be able to keep up with the incessant evolution of languages, but also be able to think as if you only knew one language so that your rendition is not “polluted” by the patterns and habits of the other language. It takes skill to extract the message, tone, and intent and convey them naturally into another language.


I hope these observations and examples help you see that translation is truly an art, craft, and science of words. Translators who are committed to providing high quality work handle your texts with expertise and care. If you’d like more tips on finding quality translators for your projects, sign up on my homepage to get my free guide on vetting translators delivered straight to your inbox.


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