Orange Gravy, Por Favor

Paul Revere and Chicken Little had a lot in common. Demonstrating deep concern for others, and with little regard for their own safety, they ran across the countryside warning others of imminent danger. In repayment for their valor, one was made a hero; the other was made into soup.

Well aware of the danger I face, and at the risk of becoming the main ingredient of someone’s jambalaya, I now step forward to shout my warning. The Translators are coming! The Translators are coming!

Modern technology, transportation, communications, and trade agreements have brought people closer than ever before. The far corners of the earth are now just down the block. The global village is one giant city dotted with ethnic neighborhoods; each neighborhood clinging to its own language and culture. We find ourselves at the mercy of a few multi-lingual individuals – the translators. Can these translators be trusted? I don’t think so.

A major reason for translation problems is the lack of fluency on the part of the translators. Recently I bought a new computer. While installing the display, I encountered the following statement in the User’s Guide: “The special type provides speaker fasten nut on two sides for fasten speaker in multimedia using.” The display was manufactured in China. One has to wonder if the person who translated the User’s Guide ever stepped, or even peeked, beyond the Great Wall.

Americans are just as guilty. It wasn’t long ago that I went into a restaurant in Mexico and, armed with two years of high school Spanish, ordered a glass of orange gravy to go with my bacon and eggs. The waiter probably pegged me as a fool as soon as I asked “How art thee?”

My faux pas in Mexico pales in light of General Motors’ South American blunder. They didn’t even attempt a translation when they introduced the Chevy Nova to our Latin American neighbors. It wasn’t until their vehicle failed to sell that they bothered to investigate. Even with my scant fluency, I could’ve told them that no va is Spanish for “it doesn’t go.”

Coca-Cola, on the other hand, took the time to come up with a translation prior to introducing its product in China. Sales were brisk for the world famous beverage – in spite of its being labeled “Bite the wax tadpole.” In one particular Chinese dialect, the chosen name was interpreted as “Female horse stuffed with wax,” which brings us to a second major reason for translation problems: translators fail to recognize cultural differences and slang.

Anyone familiar with the United States and Great Britain knows that British English and American English are quite different. The young British girl who asks a young American male to “Knock me up.” soon discovers he expects to do more than just pay her a visit. Similar differences can be found within any country that purports to have the same language. I was once assigned to “translate” self-study material written by a woman from the Deep South. She consistently instructed the students to “mash” the Enter key. Because I’ve often been tempted to beat the living hell out of a computer, I felt it would be better to ask them to “press” the key.

Electrolux, a Scandinavian manufacturer of vacuum cleaners, learned American slang the hard way when its slogan, “Nothing sucks like an Electrolux.” was met with roars of laughter instead of increased sales. Japan’s Kinki Nippon had a similar experience. The tourist agency had to change its name when Americans made repeated requests for unusual sex tours.

If English-speaking nations use slang, it’s safe to assume other countries use slang as well. Yet corporations continually fail to investigate prior to introducing new products. In Brazil, Ford had to change the name of its Pinto automobile when it was learned that “pinto” was slang for “tiny male genitals.” In France, the makers of Colgate toothpaste faced a problem just as sensitive. They had to rename their product after they discovered that “Cue,” the original name, was also the name of a pornographic magazine.

Before we place all the blame on the tongues of the translators, it’s only fair to look at what they have to work with. Computer programmers are well aware of GIGO, an acronym which means “Garbage In, Garbage Out.” The same rule applies to translators.

I recently received an offer for Funeral insurance. To convince me to buy, the letter enthused: “In your state, there is now available a plan that will pay up to $15,000 which your beneficiary may use for burial other final expenses.” Does that mean my beneficiary may bury, rather than pay, my outstanding bills? Did the typesetter omit the word “of”? Or was the missing word supposed to be “or”?

While this example may seem obvious, there are many other examples of ambiguous writing that aren’t so evident. If a translator misses the ambiguity and interprets the garbage literally, the translation is guaranteed to be just as confusing as, if not more baffling than, the original. Grammar teachers and editors constantly struggle with the misuse of language and often try to bring the errors to the author’s attention. Unfortunately, many ad agencies and corporate publications departments don’t seem to recognize the need to professionally edit their output. All too often they rely on computers instead.

Computer word processors equipped with spell checking routines provide a false sense of security; they can’t catch a misused word if it is spelled correctly. And even the most sophisticated grammar checking programs can’t identify every word used out of context. The only way to catch all mistakes is to have a human, knowledgeable in language usage, read the material.

This is especially true for the output of computerized translation programs. Relatively new, these programs are far from foolproof. A gentleman from Germany used one such program in an office adjacent to mine. He’d been led to believe all he had to do was tell the computer the name of the document to be translated. I knew the program’s author had lied when Horst frequently shouted, “That’s un-possible!”

A similar program was used by a hospital to create a Spanish translation of instructions for new mothers. Fortunately, they asked a Cuban immigrant to check the results. She reported that the least damaging of the flaws told the new mothers to beat the baby dry with a soft cloth.

Translation problems must be eliminated. The question is: are companies willing to spend the money to do it? Like most executive decisions, proper translation is a matter of cost. Executives must recognize that poorly translated materials are costing them money. Then, and only then, will they take action to fix the problem.

Most faulty translations do nothing more than cause laughter. As long as the humor doesn’t impact sales, it’s not seen as a real problem and nothing is done. Bungled instruction manuals, on the other hand, can cause anything from mild inconvenience to very serious problems. Ambiguous statements can frustrate and anger customers. Incomplete or incorrect directions could lead to product damage or an injury. Depending on the product and the extent of the misinterpretation, an injury could be fatal. Thus, a company could face expensive lawsuits due to flawed documentation.

Many companies have 800 numbers for customers who need help. These “help desks” represent a direct measurable cost. When analyses demonstrate that correcting a document is cheaper than paying people to repeatedly answer the same questions, the corrections are made.

Perhaps companies will begin to put a dollar value on public image and take a proactive stance on the materials they distribute. The steps to ensure correct readable documents are simple.

1. Have the original materials written or edited by a professional.

2. Use translators who are fluent in the foreign language – preferably, foreign nationals.

3. Have the materials edited by a foreign national who is well versed in the culture and slang of his or her country.

While these steps would go a long way toward solving the problem, there is one obstacle that can’t be avoided. This obstacle is best described using an actual situation.

A friend of mine (who shall remain anonymous) went to the doctor with a severely sprained ankle. When she got home, she called her brother, a pharmacist, and asked him to bring her the prescribed medication. When he started laughing, she became angry. When he explained why he was laughing, she got embarrassed. The doctor had told her to soak her foot in tepid water. She didn’t realize such ‘medicinal’ water was readily available at her kitchen sink.

The most clearly written instructions and the best translations can still be misinterpreted by people who possess limited vocabularies. This fact must be considered by anyone trying to convey information to the potential users of products and services.

The sky may not be falling and the British may have decided to stay home this time, but I will continue to shout my warnings. It’s just a matter of time before corporate executives heed my warning and devote more time and money to resolving translation problems. Of course, I must also accept the reality that with a few carrots, onions, potatoes, and the proper seasoning, I would make a lovely stew.


One Response to Orange Gravy, Por Favor

  1. I had such a good time with your article! As a professional translator, I can tell you that clients who take the time to provide the translator with reference materials and as much information on the product and its terminology as it is available, receive much better translations.

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