A regional business magazine added a creative design element to an article I wrote about translation. Ironically, that design included a translation error generated by a machine translation program, and the article, titled “Lost in Translation,” became self-descriptive.
The day the magazine arrived at my office, I was excited to see the new article about translation. In the table of contents, I found the title and opened to pages 22 and 23 to read “Lost in Translation: Preserving Brand Strength in Foreign Markets.” I immediately noticed that the article was somewhat different from my original – the title had been changed and some paragraphs had been removed for length, as often happens in print media.
However, I became concerned when I saw large, bright, red text splashed across both pages in six languages. Where did these multilingual phrases originate? I knew Globalization Group, the translation company where I work, had not provided any translations. These phrases were apparently supposed to be translations of the article title, “Lost in Translation,” but something about them did not look right.
I first asked a colleague, a localization project manager whose native language is Chinese. She looked at the Chinese graphic and noted that the characters displayed, “迷失東京,” actually mean “Lost Tokyo.” Tokyo? Like most English idioms, “lost in translation” is a difficult phrase to translate, but what in the world did it have to do with Tokyo? How did the magazine come up with this mistranslation?
A quick check revealed that the translation was created with the free online machine translation program known as Google Translate, but why would Google suggest a translation about Tokyo? The automatic program had produced an actual Chinese title of the 2003 film Lost in Translation, starring Scarlett Johansson and Bill Murray as two people figuratively lost in — ah ha — the culture of Tokyo, Japan. Film titles regularly require flexible translations like this, which is fine for films, but the content of this magazine article had absolutely nothing to do with the movie.
My concern over the gaffe turned to horror as I realized many of Globalization Group’s clients, potential clients and competitors were reading this magazine. A good number of these clients speak Chinese and various other languages, so they would see the blunder, unaware it was the magazine’s own creative “improvement,” and incorrectly assume Globalization Group and I had incompetently provided bad machine translations. Yikes!
Even worse, the following excerpt from the article specifically warns about the perils of both misusing machine translation and publishing translations without editing:
“Another way to impair your global marketing message is to sidestep human translation in favor of machine translation. One restaurateur in China attempted to retrieve an automated translation of his restaurant name on a day when a machine translation engine was apparently not working. With no review by a professional Chinese-to-English translator, the restaurateur posted a large sign above the storefront that read, ‘Translate Server Error,’ a peculiar name for a restaurant.”
Adding to the irony of the situation, the article appears in a section titled, “Lessons Learned.” All international businesses can benefit from learning a few of the following lessons before they suffer the consequences firsthand.
First, preventing translation blunders is easier than recovering from them. Microsoft, for instance, has previously seen the consequences of skipping preventative measures and then spending millions to recall hundreds of thousands of blundered software copies from an offended international market. Not everyone who noticed the previous month’s big, red blunder will notice a practically invisible two-line retraction in next month’s issue. Publicizing a correction in a manner that reaches all previous readers is difficult. Just ask AVUS Performance if they think everyone who saw their misnamed “Audi RS6 White Power” car also saw the correction and explanation in their subsequent press release.
Second, unedited machine translation is not appropriate for all situations. While useful for some situations, like getting the “gist” of low-value, user-generated text on a social-networking site, machine translation is usually not appropriate for legally and financially sensitive information, marketing text that attracts and retains customers or — hypothetically speaking — magazine articles that explain how to obtain high-quality human translation to preserve brand strength. The magazine could have quickly and easily prevented this translation error by checking with someone who worked in translation — like, perhaps, the author of the article.
Third, native-speaking professional linguists must edit all translations. Native speakers can more easily produce natural-sounding translations of most text, especially idioms. If a graphic designer, or anyone, touches a translation — let alone creates a translation — a professional human linguist must check it before publication. This international business column and websites like Engrish.com are filled with blunders that result when companies do not follow this simple rule.
Fourth, just because someone in a company understands how to avoid the risks of producing bad translation does not mean everyone in a company does. Someone else — someone whose job description is not even supposed to include translation — may not know it is inappropriate to run your marketing collateral through a free online translator. Even the U.S. State Department, home to some of the world’s most admired teams of translators and interpreters, has suffered terrible public embarrassment when people outside its language departments have mistakenly decided to produce their own unprofessional translations.
In all fairness, this regional magazine is normally an English-only publication that will publish very few future items, if any, in other languages. For that reason, why should the magazine preemptively educate its employees on the importance of getting translation right? On the other hand, perhaps this incident emphasizes the importance that almost all companies — even those that rarely deal with translation — understand a few basic lessons about working in other languages.
Important quality controls can prevent blunders like this. However, when such errors sneak through, the way we respond is equally as important. The magazine editors and staff are responding professionally by publishing retractions.
Still, this painfully ironic mistranslation is an opportunity to learn the following lessons: prevention is better than retraction; high-quality translation requires use of professional human translators and editors, not misuse of machine translation; and everyone who might touch published text must learn these lessons to prevent translation blunders. As with all the international challenges and blunders I share, I hope the lessons illustrated here will help your company avoid getting similarly lost in translation… or Tokyo!