Marketing Communication Ink

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Bad Translations. Funny Mistakes. And Best Practices to Avoid Making Them.

Bad Translations

One of my favorite examples of a bad translation.

Even ace writers, working in their native language, struggle with getting their words and messages just right… the nuances of meaning, the turn of a phrase… So, imagine the challenges of translating a highly-technical business document, or the sizzle of an advertising message, into a language other than your mother tongue. Sometimes the results are nothing short of comical.

Consider this safety message, which our German headquarters office insisted we add to our equipment operating manuals:

“The degree of danger is a part of a safety note and distinguishes the possible results of non-observance from each other.”

Huh? (We ultimately agreed on a message that actually made sense.)

Then, there’s this sales pitch, which I found on the website of a manufacturer willing to custom design their products to your specifications:

“We will pleasantly put your ideas into practice together with you.”

That same company goes on to brag about their quality. They write:

“What differs a brand product from a low budget product?

Our answer: almost everything. Everything for what we get up daily. Everything we invest time, money and efforts in. And everything for what we guarantee with our name.

This is devoted to all, which do their job with the same enthusiasm, like we do and which follow the same guideline: Our brand is our pretension.”


You get the idea, but let me share another example with you. This headline was suggested by our German-based parent company for a corporate capabilities brochure. We manufactured laboratory equipment for growing genetically-engineered cells, the page was dedicated to the advantages of working with an experienced vendor, and the headline read:

“Experience Is Like Fertilizer.”

In a way, it’s brilliant because, in fact, fertilizer does help things grow. But wait… where does fertilizer come from? Horse manure. We changed the headline to “The Knowledge to Nurture.”

Controlling Language Translation Costs

From the absurd to the sublime, good translations walk a very fine line.

And it’s much more complex than just finding the right words. Good translations are costly. So several years ago, translation services came up with the idea of putting a company’s translated documents into a database, so the same words and phrases could be used over and over again, across documents, manuals, presentations, and so on, reducing translation costs and streamlining the translation process.

But deciding to use one term repeatedly, and that term only, not only takes the fun and creativity out of writing (as well as reading), but also requires a whole new thought process to write. Now, all of a sudden, you need to think about what’s the very best word or phrase to choose – because once you settle on that term, you’re stuck with it.

And if you’re not careful, the word that you might think is perfectly clear and understandable, is not.

For example, our operating manuals often referred to our equipment as a “unit,” as in the instructions:

“Place the unit on a level, sturdy bench, capable of holding xx lbs.”

But “unit” can mean any number of different things, from “one” (e.g., a single unit), to a group, such as “The Army unit marched off in that direction.” In fact, this document’s Spellchecker offered 13 different meanings for the word “unit.” Strike that from our list of approved words.

It’s the reason that corporate dictionaries of approved terms, as well as words that are not to be used, should be established and followed.

How to Avoid Making Bad Translations

Here are just a few basic suggestions to avoid making bad translations in the business world; in all honesty, this barely skims the surface:

  • Create a corporate dictionary of terms, as described above.
  • Share that dictionary with all departments, so there is a consistency of language used throughout the corporation. Depending on the size of your firm, you may have different writers for technical manuals than for marketing materials, sales proposals, and so on.
  • If using a translation service, select a firm that employs local, native speakers to proofread the text.
  • Circulate the translated text among colleagues who are native speakers of the language to catch errors or colloquialisms.
  • There are software programs like XMetaL that enable bits and pieces of documents to be written, saved and re-used across a multitude of different documents, saving time and money by eliminating the need to continuously re-translate the same passages over and over. It works much in the same way as how movies are filmed – out of order and then strung together later. Note – these programs are expensive, complex, and best left to the pros – unlike intuitive programs like Microsoft Word®, this is not a program you’ll be able to teach yourself.

In fact, the entire topic of language translations, globalization and localization is a science unto itself. There are dozens of translation services, books, blogs, and societies dedicated just to this topic. Listed below are just a few.

Related Resources

Translation and Language Associations

Language Translation Services

Bad Translations, Just for Fun

The Vietnamese restaurant across the street from where I worked had a handwritten sign, permanently posted on their door that read,  “Closed Mondays. Thank you for the inconvenience.”

For a visual parade of even more bad translations, here are just a few of the sites you can find on the web:

Legal Disclaimers and About the Author

I am not affiliated with any of the organizations listed here, nor have I used any of their services – save for having E.J. Emerson, my grammar guru, give select articles a “once over” by her trained, eagle eyes.

Clearly, this article is not intended to be translated, otherwise it would have been written entirely differently, eliminating words and phrases with dual meanings.

I am a marketing communications pro, writer, editor and problem solver, available for freelance projects. Whether you just need help polishing up a poorly translated press release, or need someone to pen a marketing document from scratch, I can help.


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