Lost in translation?

Surely this is something deliberate? How can this be an accident?

1 Like

Of course I don’t know one way or other. But when it comes to probabilities I incline towards Hanlon’s Razor: “Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity”. And Facebook apparently has a history of messing up translations from Burmese.


That reminds me, I wonder if Firefly was banned or rated adult in China ?
(for those that never saw it, all the swearing was in Chinese so they could put really bad language in and pass the English censors).


Not just Facebook.

At my previous job, I used to have to do a lot of technical writing and translations. One week, I had to rush out a complete user manual for an industrial terminal in English, which was no problem. Then the boss wanted the German version the next day. I told him it would take me a few days to translate everything. He told me the terminals were going out tomorrow and the finished documentation had to be delivered with the terminals, and what is Google Translate there for anyway?

I tried putting it through Google Translate (this was around 5 years ago). After I had picked myself up from the floor and stopped laughing, I went back to the boss and told him he could have the documentation in 3 days.

Even basic sentences were totally messed up:
“Do not open the case, high voltage inside” -> Das Gehäuse öffnen, Starkstrom drinnen (Open the case, high voltage inside)
“Do not open the case, no user serviceable parts inside” -> Das Gehäuse öffnen, nichts drin (Open the case, nothing inside)

There were dozens of other examples of Google Translate getting the sentences completely wrong, but the second one is funny, unless you’ve just paid $4,000 for a touch screen PC, the first one is downright dangerous. I did push the correct translations back to Google Translate and they now do translate correctly.

Bing Translate wasn’t any better.

Google seemed to have real problems with formal English. If I wrote the sentence in abbreviated “speech” form (“don’t”) it would translate correctly, but anything written in formal English (“do not”), Google would drop the “not” from the translation… Not really a big deal, right? I mean, it hardly changes the meaning of the translated sentence, right?

Luckily I am fluent in both languages* and I could spot the errors and mistakes straight away. For somebody who didn’t understand the source language, Google Translate could have been fatal.

.* being fluent in a language doesn’t make you a translator. Translating is much harder than it sounds and it takes a long time to do it properly - I actually did an internship in a translation office, but even though my use of both languages is good, the translations were classed as mediocre and not of sufficient quality to hand out to a customer; they were contextually and grammatically correct, but a long way from being professional.
At the same company mentioned above, they actually roped me into doing simultaneous translations for an event - that means you listen to the speaker talking in German and you have to speak into a microphone in English as they are speaking, translating what they are saying! That is very tiring and a professional company said they would send 2 translators, because you can’t do it for more than 5 minutes at a time, as it is too stressful. I did around 6 hours of simultaneous translation, with 2 fifteen minute breaks and an hour for lunch! At the end of the event, I was totally exhausted and I had the worst headache I’ve ever had.


I think this is probably my favourite post on the whole forum. Getting the wording right for a target audience is incredibly difficult in one language, let alone two. And people, let alone automated systems, have a problem with missing out a negative and changing the meaning of a sentence. Almost every week I read something in the tech press where it’s obvious the writer meant to use a negative in a sentence and missed it out, creating a sentence that clashes with the rest of the content.

There’s the question of whether one’s writing for people with English as a second language or as a first language. For the latter, “do not” often lacks impact because from childhood it’s the voice of authority, the thing you learn to ignore if you want to have any fun, so some people have already stopped paying attention after those words. Whereas “don’t!” has usually been personal, directly aimed at the hearer and has more impact. Take an international audience with no childhood experience of English, and the relative impact could be the other way round.

I have so much respect for people who write instructional materials in an international context, let alone in two languages. And then translation is another level of complexity, and anyone who has done simultaneous translation successfully is right up at the pinnacle of language use in my view. Our brains are not really designed for multitasking, so I’m not surprised you had a headache!