Translation Day: why is translation so difficult?

“TRANSLATE OR DIE. The lives of every creature on the earth may one day depend on the instant and accurate translation of one word.” Paul Engle’s quote.



On this International Translation Day, let us reflect: why is translating so difficult? Why only knowing a pair of languages is not enough?

If the only requirement for a good translation were the conversion of phrases from a language to another certainly the machine translators would be quite enough. Grammatical rules, vocabulary and speed count, but people have characteristics that are mandatory to any translator who wants to ensure quality and accuracy in a translation. It doesn’t matter the level of experience, the number of years worked or how many words he has already converted; when translating, sensibility, mistrust about the real meaning of a word and curiosity are needed and must join the knowledge. The machine loses in those qualities.

It is by these reasons that we still have a place in the job market, and it is also by these reasons that we are celebrating the International Translation Day, on this September, a day entirely dedicated to us, translators. Since curiosity is an inherent part of our being, I will explain right away that on this day, in 419 or 420, died Saint Jerome, the translator of the Bible from the Old Greek and Hebrew to Latin, and author of important articles about the art of translating. Saint Jerome is considered the translator’s patron saint.

In translation, small mistakes lead to big problems

There must be some very good reasons to why it took Saint Jerome 15 years to translate the Bible. At that time he had already figured out that translating goes beyond the simple conversion of words from a language to another and expressed the need to convey not only the meaning of the words, but also grasp their sense and the feeling contained within the text. “Even the order of the words is a mystery and for this reason we need to touch its heart”, he said. The lack of sensibility and doubts about the meaning of a single word have already generated misunderstandings of international proportions. I chose some examples that illustrates what I’m saying.

Concerning to the “match” played by man against machine, the Norwegian delegation, during the Winter Olympic Games in 2018, was defeated. After using machine translation services to translate the grocery list for the products to be used to the meals of athletes and the coaching staff, they ended up getting a loading of 15000 eggs instead of 1500 referred on the original list. The fact was reported by the press and became a joke. Fortunately, the Norwegian delegation managed to return the excess 13500 eggs, but this kind of situations could be avoided if the translation had been delegated to a professional.

Other times, we have more complex situations, and in these circumstances great caution is needed. So, in translation, all that stuff you frequently hear like “it is easy and you do it in no time”, frequently followed by haggling, doesn’t work. If you realized, this is neither easy nor quick. For this reason, it’s important to rely the translations you need to a professional, mainly to a native speaker or at least who has been living for years in the country of the target language. Knowing in depth the cultural content enclosed in words and expressions is essential and leads to less possibly upsetting mistakes. Even great companies such as Pepsi, Coca-Cola and Electrolux have already slipped in translation when trying to sell their own products.

Pepsi, in the 90’s, launched an international advertising campaign with the slogan “Come Alive! You’re in the Pepsi Generation”, translated to the Chinese market as “Pepsi brings your ancestors back from the grave”, what, as people say, interfered with its sales. Coca-Cola in its turn, in New Zealand, translated only in part its slogan to the Maori language leaving the other part in English, and what would be a cordial “Hello, mate!”, to call the consumer’s attention, led to an awkward “Kia ora, Mate!” (Hello, death!). Electrolux also had an embarrassed experience when promoting its vacuum cleaner in English-languages countries. The Swedish manufacturer used the slogan “Nothing sucks like an Electrolux”, regardless the double sense of the word “sucks”, and risked jeopardizing the quality of its own vacuum cleaner… “That really sucks!”.

How much can a wrong translation cost?

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