Forgoing a professional translator comes at a high cost.
In this day and age of electronic capabilities, free online translation programs are readily available, and it may be tempting to forgo the expense of hiring a professional translator in favor of using these easy options. But before you opt to go it alone without professional help, you’ll want to consider how the limitations of electronic translation might affect your business.
• Linguistic confusion
Electronic programs often render literal translations, which means that colloquial expressions or regional usage can become very confusing. Consider the French phrase “"Se taper le cul par terre," which means to laugh uproariously. Probably the closest translation would be “to roll on the floor laughing,” but electronic translation renders it as “stomp on the floor” or “ass banging on the floor.” The first implies anger rather than amusement, while the second suggests violence and makes little sense in context.
• False cognates
Languages like Spanish and French frequently use words that sound the same or similar in English, but they don’t always mean the same thing. If you went to a doctor in Mexico complaining that you were constipado, or constipated, you’d likely be prescribed something to clear your nasal congestion, since constipado actually means that you have a bad cold. Constipation as we know it in English should be rendered as estreñimiento. Electronic translation programs often miss these important distinctions.
• Regional variations
Spanish is spoken in 22 countries around the world, and each one has its own expressions and usage that vary slightly or even significantly from one another. The verb coger, for example, is a commonly used word in Spain that means, generally, “to take.” But in many countries in Latin America, the word is used as a euphemism for having sex, with the added baggage of being somewhat vulgar, as in “to screw.” The word is perfectly fine if you’re communicating with Spaniards, but you’ll want to be careful if your target audience is in Argentina. Professional translators specialize in localization, the adaptation of the language to the specific region, to avoid just such problems.
• Professional lingo
Most professions use language specific to their fields that sometimes make little sense even in English to those not involved in the field. A phrase like “action-rate metric,” used by the financial planning industry and others to mean the number of potential clients that have been converted to actual clients, is translated electronically into Spanish as métrica de velocidad de acción, or “speed of action measurement.” That sounds important, but means nothing.
Not everyone uses electronic programs, of course, but many companies use bilingual employees or acquaintances to handle their translations. While this works better than electronic programs, it still has its drawbacks. Just as you hire professional copywriters to prepare your written materials despite the fact that your employees presumably can write in English, you should look to professional translators to ensure that your translated copy is accurate, appropriate, and culturally sensitive. There’s more to translation than knowing the language; translated work should convey all of the nuances of the original and must take into consideration the above-mentioned considerations. Professionals are trained to do just that, and they bring a higher level of writing and editing skills to the task.
So, before you risk confusing —or worse, offending—your clients with off-kilter translations, consider hiring a professional to make all of your materials accurate, accessible, and commensurate with your company’s overall professional profile. That way you can be confident that you are communicating successfully, and you’ll avoid unnecessary misunderstandings and embarrassment.