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  • Rosie Marsland

Even prestigious French institutions can fall prey to translation fails - part 1


I find that being a translator is usually a very satisfying job. Solving linguistic problems, thinking about the right tone and how to strike it, researching random and varied topics in the depths of the Internet... But anyone thinking about going into this profession should be warned - after working hard to gain experience and get qualified, you are at high risk of being driven to frustration by coming across bad translations in the wild.


You could contentedly be going about your business when, BAM! you see a translation that almost hurts your eyes to look at. The risk is particularly elevated if you live in a country where your source language is the main language spoken. Such was the case of the above photo, which I took when attending a conference last year in a central Lyon building that houses a prestigious French institution (I'll refrain from naming and shaming them).


Maybe I'm being a little melodramatic (OK, a lot). But I was honestly shocked when I saw this sign in the women's toilets. This institution thinks it's worth their time to put an English version of this instruction on how to use the flush for their non-Francophone visitors. But not worth the effort or cost to have these nine (NINE) words translated professionally? After the initial burst of laughter, I got to thinking...


Often, these kinds of #translationfails are the subject of listicles online, featuring accidental euphemisms, unintended connotations and abundant miscommunication, cause for laughter and head-shaking disbelief. But when you think about it, this means that someone (or even a chain of people) signed off on the publication of a translation without sending it for even a quick check by a native speaker (or even an advanced non-native speaker). Not to mention considering the possibility of hiring a professional translator to do the job in the first place!


Those in the business are all too familiar with the abundance of misconceptions about translation work among the general public. One that I encounter the most frequently is the idea that anyone who can speak another language can translate to or from that language. A lot of people assume that I translate both English > French and French > English when I tell them about my work. But, as I often explain, a professional translator considers their language combination(s) and direction(s) very carefully. As a general rule, you should only translate from languages that you are fluent in into your mother tongue (without getting into the debate of what it means to be fluent and acknowledging that like with all rules, there are exceptions!) I would never translate into French myself for a myriad of reasons, the most important being that I would not be happy with the quality of the work I could produce as a non-native speaker. Not to mention the fact that there are many English > French translators who would be happy to have the project!


I digress. But what I'm getting at is that this leads to businesses, associations and institutions undervaluing our work and thinking that Marie from Accounting can translate that French document into English because they did an exchange in London during university, or, worse, that Google Translate or another automatic translation program can take care of it. What they don't understand is that it's a very real risk they are taking by refusing to invest in their multilingual communication.


I find that this kind of attitude is particularly common when it comes to translation into English. Because so many people learn English as a foreign language (and can often speak it very well), the expertise of native speakers is often undervalued or thought to be unnecessary. But all it takes is one small (or big) mistake, one non-idiomatic expression or one weird choice of words for the Anglophone reader to realise that this translation was, in all likelihood, not done by a professional translator.


Take the example above. Sure, it's funny, but the actual message that such a poor translation is sending to any Anglophone visitors is that this institution has very little respect for them. By not valuing the work of professional translators, you show that you do not value your customers and partners who speak that language and rely on translation to feel included and understand what is going on. And that's without going into the possibility of danger, liability or serious miscommunication that could ensue from an incorrect translation.


Keep tuned for more examples of bad translations that I've spotted while out and about - unfortunately, it happens more often than I would like. The answer to this problem is easy though - hire a professional!

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