40+ real examples of totally avoidable translation mistakes found in Prague
I recently returned from a really great business trip to Prague, Czech Republic. I have a killer eye for detail and mistakes in written English really jump out at me. Hi, my name is Jemma and I correct apostrophes on posters in pub toilets.
I don’t agree with grammar shaming things other individuals have written – especially personal posts and non-commercial content. That’s not what this is about. We can’t all be good at all things – but that’s when it’s important to bring in an expert. In the translation industry that means a native speaker of the target language (the language you want the translation in) who has a professionally-recognised translation qualification. Using a language student, teacher, intern, neighbour, someone who once went on holiday to that country just won’t produce good enough results. And ultimately it is the business that suffers. And we can see evidence of this in these examples.
Being careful not to name names, I've put a few of the real and current examples of Czech into English translation mistakes that I found on my trip at the bottom of this post. They come from different types of content – from menus to public signs and notices, and all types of businesses – from budget to high-end. Skip to the bottom of the page to check them out now.
The most common mistakes
1. Literal word-for-word translation that sounds unnatural and has poor flow
- Machine translation
- A non-native speaker
- A non-qualified translator who does not fully understand the source language so is afraid to venture too far from the original wording
- Lack of knowledge of translation theory and best practice
For example, literal translation of place names
- Lack of local cultural knowledge
This is particularly a problem with menus and perhaps a translator who has never even been to the country of the source language. Therefore, beware large global translation agencies offering super cheap rates – you won’t know where your translator is based or their individual skills, experience or credentials.
- Wrong tone of voice
For example, using formal legal English for sports event marketing
2. Spelling mistakes
These are usually caused by:
- Writing words as they sound
This is very common for people who mostly work with spoken English (like waiters/tour guides/salespersons) or people who have never formally studied a language and have learnt through real-life practice (and kudos for that – it’s just not quite right for written work that will be published and/or printed).
- Source and target words are very similar
For example: salát (CS) and salad (EN); limonáda (CS) and lemonade (EN)
- Rushed work (unfeasible deadlines)
- Overwork (high volumes with no time for attention to detail)
3. Incorrect word choice
- Translating from memory without research or referencing
- Incorrect use of machine translation or online/paper dictionaries – there usually several words per entry and not all will fit into every context
4. Punctuation issues
The cause is very often:
- Insufficient knowledge of the target language grammar
- Copying over source language punctuation as default
5. Format issues (missing spaces/double spaces, incorrect line breaks, inconsistent style, incorrect capitalisation)
Common causes include:
- Layout is done by a someone who doesn't speak the target language
- No attention to detail
- No time for checks
- Lack of corporate style guide for consistency
The examples given below fall into two categories: major and minor errors.
Major mistakes are just plain wrong or misleading. This results in unsatisfied customers who may complain, not pay/request a discount, leave a bad review (either officially on a website or with friends and family) and not come back again. Prague is an international city full of expats, international students and tourists. Most of them do not speak Czech and they rely on English translations provided by businesses. When the English is wrong, it makes it even harder for people using English as a second language to interact with your business. In many cases the message is totally lost. In today’s competitive market, these are just barriers you don’t need.
Others are just so-called "minor" issues where the main message can still be understood in general – enough to get by. But when it comes to business, if you don’t care about getting content right, your customer will know. It looks careless and unprofessional and this affects how your potential and existing customers feel about your business. It may not be a conscious or immediate rejection, but on some level these kinds of mistakes are irritating, introduce doubt and reduce customer engagement and/or loyalty: If Business X couldn’t be bothered to get a good translation, maybe they don’t care about the product/service they deliver either.
In my experience, the most common reason for not using a professional translator is cost – businesses believe they can do it cheaper (and for the more arrogant ones better) themselves. But it’s a false economy. The old sayings are true:
- Buy cheap, pay twice.
- Pay peanuts, get monkeys.
- If you think using a professional is expensive, try using an amateur.
Just as you wouldn’t trust "DIY Dave" to fix your gas boiler and heating at home, you shouldn’t entrust your business’s content to just anyone. Your written word is usually the first contact many customers have with your business – so it’s important to get this right and give the best impression you can. Only a professional wordsmith can deliver this.
The curse of instant publishing
We’re all human and mistakes such as typos and spelling mistakes do happen. That’s why it’s just so important to also use a professional editor/proofreader. With the rise of digital content, it’s all too easy to get into the habit of rushing out content on-the-fly in real time. After all, there’s an edit button and IF you later find a mistake it can be fixed. But a lot of the examples below are from print materials. This means that using the wrong person for translation and copywriting means there's a high risk having to re-do costly print runs because of silly typos and formatting issues. Or, where materials with mistakes are not corrected and re-printed, the cost is paid in customer engagement and the reputation of the business.
Don’t make the same mistakes as these companies. Invest in your customer base by investing in a good translator who has an eye for detail. Perfect content that is designed to resonate with your target audience is worth paying for. It will produce a much better ROI than shoddily translated or written content. Let the quality of your business services and products be reflected in the quality of message that you are giving your customers.
If you need help making sure your English-language content is perfect for publishing and tailored to your target market, then get in touch. Here at Language JEM we offer translation from Russian and Czech into English, Monolingual Review, Editing, Proofreading, Pre-print Review, Brand Voice, Style Guides and Copywriting services tailored to the needs of your business.