Does low quality translation still help foster communication?
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Translation quality debate: does poor translation still help foster communication?

Yesterday I saw a tweet from Robert Etches, CIO at TextMinded Denmark, Chairman of GALA, and a member of the Advisory Board of Translators without Borders.


I just had to react:

And here’s the reply I got:


This tweet got me thinking about my attitude to translators and translations that are ‘not good’. I see several problems here.


The first one is that bad translations often lead to miscommunication.


Mistranslated information loses all its value and can become dangerous.


The consequences may range from a serious disability for an 18-year old who was not administered proper treatment due to the absence of a professional interpreter, to the death of thousands of people in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. There’s an opinion that Truman’s decision to drop the bombs was influenced by the mistranslation of Japanese government response to the terms of its surrender proposed by the Allied leaders.


Of course, bad translation doesn’t always have tragic consequences, but it often mangles the message thus rendering the act of translation itself pointless. It hinders communication rather than helping it.


Another problem with bad translation is that even if it conveys the message of the source text correctly it degrades the overall level of the content. People get used to reading crappy texts riddled with typos, errors and strange linguistic constructions that leave the reader struggling to understand what the writer was getting at.


Inarticulate writing becomes the new norm for some people. And I can’t help wondering whether we really need to create more low-quality content in a world of constant information overload.


But the second problem wouldn’t really bother me that much. After all, we’re all free to share the information with the people around us and if you have language skills why not use them to make some texts available to those who wouldn’t be able to read them otherwise, right?


Sure! As long as there is no money involved in this equation.


It’s ok to give advice on healthy eating based on my personal experience to a friend. But it’s not ok to charge money for nutritional consultations if you don’t have the necessary qualifications.


It’s ok to share my experience of fostering new-born kittens on social media. But it’s not ok to charge money for veterinary advice if you’re not a veterinarian.


It’s ok to translate for your personal purposes or for pleasure. But it’s not ok to charge money for a sub-par product. And it’s even more not ok to use the services of amateurs to make money like many start-ups do.


There’s a lot of talk about the ‘uberization’ of different industries. However, the translation industry is different and there are at least two reasons for that.


1. It’s not enough to know two languages to be a translator.


Contrary to what many people think, knowing two or more languages or even being bilingual is not enough to provide translations of professional quality. Translation is a skill that requires practice. Completing one-off translation jobs on your mobile device won’t let you master that skill.


You’ll also need specialist knowledge to translate some texts. This is why professional translators pay attention to their CPD (Continuos Professional Development).


2. Translation doesn’t scale well.


Many crowdsourcing translation platforms advertise high speed as one of their competitive advantages.


They often achieve this high speed by splitting the text between multiple translators, which inevitably affects the quality of the final product. Different people have different writing styles and you should keep in mind the absence of quality assurance or editors on such platforms.


Besides, there are some types of translation, like transcreation, that simply require more time. It’s naive to expect that a slogan that took a team of creatives and several hours, days or weeks of brainstorming can be translated in a few minutes, even if it’s just a couple of words.


Even in our fast-paced times quality often trumps speed. So you should think carefully when choosing a translation provider.


Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for communication and building bridges between cultures. But I believe that those bridges should be solid. They should be safe for the people to use them. Otherwise, they can bring more harm than good.




  • Anonymous

    28.10.2016 at 17:27 Reply

    Happy to have made you think about this topic. Difficult to answer fully from a smartphone at the airport, but will try to get back to you later
    But rest assured that there are many situations where amateurs do it better and faster … and that from someone who was a professional translator myself for almost 20 years, and who has the great privilege of having 15 professional translators as colleagues and send work to 100s of others. Every day

    • Elena

      28.10.2016 at 17:50 Reply

      Thank you for your comment, Robert!

      Interesting point of view! I’d love to learn more about such situations.

  • Beverly Hayes

    29.10.2016 at 01:39 Reply

    I am not really sure if my previous message went through. So here we go again!

    I like how you made a distinction between translating for free and translating for a living. Before I read your post, I always thought that translators that are not good at translating (and there are many, believe me!) had a place in the market and could just charge very little. But after reading your post , I believe I now have a different perspective. Maybe they should not even attempt to charge for their services. They should probably do it for free–as a favor to coworkers, friends, and family– and find another venue to make a living.

    What I wonder sometimes is the following: Do these translators providing bad translations think they are actually good? Do they really know themselves and understand what it takes to provide quality? I personally know my own weaknesses and strengths, and I would never attempt to earn a living on a skill that I lack. Anyway, just thinking out loud–I just have a hard time wrapping my head around this concept.

    I also liked what you said about ‘different people having different writing styles.” This is a truth that adds to the complexity of editing as well. It’s been hard for me to edit someone else’s work whose writing style does not line up with what I believe sounds better or connects more effectively.

    As always, thank you for your posts and inspiration!

    • Elena

      30.10.2016 at 18:47 Reply

      Hey Beverly, thank you for your comment and for you kind words! Messages form first time commenters are moderated, this is why you didn’t see your comments straight away.

      It’s interesting that you mentioned a place in the market for translators who aren’t good at their job. Last week I came across a Russian blog about travel. One of the articles was about ways to make money while you’re on the road and it was advertising a course on this subject. The people who teach the course offer a free e-book called ‘7 professions for making money on the Internet fast’. I got curious, so I downloaded the book and, sure enough, translator was one of those professions! Can you imagine that?

      I left a comment on the blog saying that the course creators didn’t have any idea about what our profession involves (it was clear from the way they described it), and the author of the blog replied to me saying that in any profession there are people with different levels of expertise and that there are buyers interested in different quality levels.

      On the one hand, we all have to start somewhere and I know that the quality of translation that I provided back then when I was getting started was way lower than what I can do now. On the other hand, with 5 years at the Linguistic University under my belt I’m sure I was better than someone who had just learned English at school and didn’t do a lot of writing on an every day basis.

      I believe the difference is whether you want to make translation your profession. If you do, you need to learn and grow, to practice and attend workshops, to learn how to market your services and charge more. Because if you stay at the same low level of quality and continue to charge bottom rates you’ll be doing a huge disservice to the whole profession.

      As for your thoughts on whether translators providing bad translation believe they are good, my guess it that they don’t think about it at all. They don’t have time for it, because they have to take on huge amounts of work just to make ends meet.

      • Anonymous

        12.11.2016 at 22:45 Reply

        Just barely read your reply, Elena! Thank you. I think translators providing bad translations are not necessarily swamped with work (a good amount may be, though). I think many of them just have no idea their language level is not where it needs to be to offer translation services. I have met Spanish translators that simply have it all wrong when it comes to grammar, capitalization, paragraph flow, connecting ideas, etc. and I don’t think they realize it–which is the scary part. I have had opportunities to edit Spanish translations that I almost want to re-do, and I doubt they ended up so bad because of they had too much work. It is definitely such a subjective matter–very difficult to establish parameters as each translator has a different view of what is correct or good enough for translation. Anyway, thanks again for your post!

  • Dr Jonathan Downie

    15.11.2016 at 17:19 Reply

    I have to be a typical researcher and sit on the fence on this one.

    On the one hand, there is quality sensitive content that has to be right and has to be professional. Anything where life or cash is in danger would fall under this heading. If it is about patient treatment, anything legal, selling widgets or anything like that, then you must go pro. The costs are much less than the benefits or potential drawbacks when it all goes wrong.

    On the other hand, there is time sensitive content and content that just isn’t economically viable for professionals. Fan subbing small independent films for audiences in a small language group, gisting of tweets to get an idea of what competitors are saying, quick and dirty translations of colleagues’ Facebook post etc. Here, professional translation will never work as it simply makes no economic sense. Here is where crowdsourcing, amateur translation and (please don’t shoot me), machine translation come into their own.

    What is interesting is that the existence of these other areas of translation might be a boon to the profession. Many more people now come into contact with translation than ever before. And their frustration with cheapo work or amateur work could fuel a desire for professional work. Similarly, they might see that translation is necessary after getting the gist of documents and then get a vision for making a more economical use of it on their websites. So, yes, poor translation does get the world talking but that does not mean it is risk-free.

    I am no futurist but I would foresee greater fragmentation between amateur/MT and professional translation. That could cause unparalleled growth in the profession, if we are willing to take advantage of it.

    • Elena

      16.11.2016 at 11:07 Reply

      I agree with all the points you make, Jonathan. And I like your view on the future of our profession. It makes a lot of sense, we just have to figure out how to turn the existing situation to our advantage. Thanks for stopping by!

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