Lingo Translations - Mind your Language. A full service translation agency Don't Let your translations end up a joke Think International from the start Resist the temptation to do it yourself An inquisitive translator is good news

Getting it Right

For non-linguists buying translations can be frustrating. The first question to ask is - does it really need to be translated? Translate only relevant sections of existing documents, or produce shorter texts and have these translated.

A picture is worth a thousand words

Take the burden off the words. Judicious use of maps, pictograms and diagrams can be far more effective with international readers than literary ramblings and hyper-technical descriptions. Your translator’s job will be easier; there will be less risk of stumbling over the precise technical term. And your translation bill will probably be lower.

Each year, London’s Heathrow Airport moves over 65 million travellers from all parts of the world through its five terminals using internationally-recognized pictograms.

Think international from the start

Avoid culture-bound clichés. References to your national sport may well fall flat. Ditto literary/cultural metaphors. Tread carefully with references to parts of the human body, viewed differently by different cultures. Don’t box yourself in by linking your pitch to visuals that may not carry the same meaning outside your native country, forcing translators to resort to awkward wordplay and cumbersome workarounds.

A British PM told Japanese industrialists that he planned “to go the full monty” in fixing the UK economy. Blank faces: cultural gap.

How much will it cost?

Translation prices range from 1 to 10, and while high prices do not necessarily guarantee high quality, we submit that below a certain level you are unlikely to receive a text that does credit to your company and its products. If translators are netting little more than a babysitter, they are unlikely to be tracking your market with the attention it deserves. Be realistic. How many pages can a translator produce an hour? When choosing a translation provider, calculate how much you’ve spent to develop the product or services you want to promote outside your country. If you cannot afford a professional translation, perhaps you are not ready for the international market yet.

The added value that a translation company offers (translator selection, project management, quality control, file conversions, standardized presentation of multilingual projects, etc.) also has a price tag, but can save you hours of work.

How important is style?

Some translations are hopeless from the start.

Tehao Rechargeable shaver RCCW-320: Smuggle the razor blade (reference value around 400 g) on your muscle vertically. Then drag your skin and shave back slowly.

Often these are produced by translation software, or are the work of non-native speakers struggling away with a grammar book in one hand and a dictionary in the other. They are good for a laugh. Other translations are technically accurate, yet the sentences do not flow as smoothly as they might; word order or choice of vocabulary may be unduly influenced by the original language. They are not particularly effective for selling, but may be good enough for readers who know the subject and can—or have time to—read between the lines.

Resist the temptation to do it yourself

Speaking is not writing. Oral fluency does not guarantee smooth, stylish writing. Even if you regularly negotiate successfully in French, German or Spanish, and spend lots of time in the countries where those languages are spoken, 99 times out of 100 your written command of a foreign language will be immediately recognizable as “foreign.”

If you wish to project an international image, you will probably be better served by a less ethnic approach. In many cultures, awkward or sloppy use of the local language is not amusing. It is insulting.

Finalize your text before starting the translation

Tempting as it may be to get your translation project rolling as quickly as possible, having translators work from a draft-in-progress will almost always be more time-consuming—hence more expensive (and probably more frustrating)—than waiting for the final text to be ready. Worse yet: the more versions you have, the more likely it is that errors will creep into the final version.

What about translation software?

If you are pressed for time and want to get the gist of something for your own use, translation software may be helpful. It is certainly fast. And you can’t get much cheaper than free. Careful editing of machine output by skilled human translators is one option, although not all translators will accept such assignments. Many insist that texts generated by computer programs are so skewed it is faster to start from scratch.

The Wall Street Journal gave two free online automatic translation services a test run and concluded: “These services are passable for travellers or for those wanting to translate a letter from a distant cousin. I definitely wouldn’t use them for business or anything that remotely requires accuracy”

Tell the translator what it’s for

A speech is not a web site. A sales brochure is not a catalogue entry. A graph heading is not a directional sign. Style, pronounce ability, word choice, phrasing and sentence length—all will vary, depending on where your text will appear and what you want it to achieve. An experienced translator will probably ask you for this information; make sure you know yourself.

Teachers, academics & students: at your own risk

For many companies faced with foreign-language texts, the first stop is the language department of a local school or university. While this may—sometimes —work for inbound translation, it is extremely risky for promotional texts. Teaching a foreign language is a demanding activity that requires a special set of skills. These are rarely the same as those needed to produce a smooth, stylish translation. The risks are even greater if you opt for student translators, which may seem like a nice, inexpensive option.

Would you have your company’s financial statements prepared by business students to save money?

Professional translators work into their native language

If you want your catalogue translated into German, the work should be done by a native German speaker. Native German speakers translate from foreign languages into German. As a translation buyer, you may not be aware of this, but a translator who flouts this basic rule is likely to be ignorant of other important quality issues as well.

What language do your readers speak?

Spanish for clients in Madrid or in Mexico City? British or American English? Contact your foreign partners to find out precisely what is needed. Finnish for doctors and medical personnel, or for healthcare consumers? Are you selling a financial service to the general public or investment funds to financiers in Luxembourg?

An inquisitive translator is good news

No one reads your texts more carefully than your translator. Along the way, he or she is likely to identify fuzzy bits—sections where clarification is needed. This is good news for you, since it will allow you to improve your original.

“We try to wait for our texts to come back from the translators before going to press with the original French,” says the chief economist of a major bank in Paris. “The reason is simple: our translators track our subjects closely. Their critical eye helps us identify weak spots in the original.”

Typography varies from language to language

Many printers and office staff are unaware of this—or don’t take it seriously—and may “adjust” foreign language texts to bring them into line with their own standards. But French has a space between a word and the colon that follows, and writes quotation marks « ». In German, nouns take capital letters. In Spanish and French, neither months nor days of the week take an initial capital. Oh, and never type just an “n” when Spanish requires an ñ...

A bilingual banner in the US celebrated 100 anos of municipal history. Año is year; ano is anus.

Translators and bilinguals: look closer

Professional translators are writers, producing texts that read well in the target language. They are usually fluent in their source language(s) as well. But they are above all effective bridges between the languages they work in; they can render the message of the original text, with appropriate style and terminology, in their native language. Bilingualism is something else. Bilinguals speak two languages fluently, but are not necessarily good at moving information between the two, especially in writing. And many people described as bilinguals overestimate their communication skills altogether.

Lina’s, a pricey French sandwich chain, advertised for franchisees abroad with a text concocted by a self-proclaimed bilingual employee. Slogan: “Tomorrow, we will expect on your dynamism.” Response: zero.

Choosing a translation provider

Glossy brochures and earnest and/or hard-hitting sales pitches are one thing, genuine skills another. Ask potential suppliers for samples of documents they have translated—not just client names, but texts they’ve produced and sold. If a supplier is bidding on a foreign-language version of your web site, ask to see web sites they have already produced. Ditto brochures and speeches. Run samples past a trusted, language sensitive native speaker (perhaps a foreign subsidiary or partner) for an opinion. If translation providers have been in business for several years and cannot show you any work they are pleased with, you are in trouble (so are they). Tell suppliers that their name(s) will appear alongside photo & design credits on the document they produce.

There are hundreds of ways a translation project can go off track:

Ridiculous deadlines, ambiguities in source text amplified by the translator not asking questions, misapplied MT (machine translation), no proofreading of typeset text by a native speaker, blissful unawareness of an over-confident translator operating in a vacuum, poor coordination of large projects, poor cheap freelance translator, poor expensive freelance translator, poor cheap translation company, poor expensive translation company, no client input, and on and on.