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When it comes to translating, it’s the little things that count.

Too many companies, not anticipating the sometimes subtle differences between countries and continents, send their products abroad without sufficient prior research. Later, they wonder why the sales results don’t match expectations.

Here’s a collection of real-life mistakes and some examples of machine translation, a technology that isn’t quite capable of all that’s often claimed for it. See why you need a real life flesh and blood native speaker to help you wade the treacherous waters of multilingual communication?

Instructions on children’s clothing label
“washing from left side” (wash inside out)

This is a literal translation of the German washing instructions, a superb example of the phrase “something got lost in the translation”. Good intentions plus a dictionary don’t necessarily equal a translation. And neither does that which comes out of a computer translation program. Read on.

Operating instructions of German refrigerator


This is okay for a British market, but to my American ear, it sounds like they want me to put a handful of potting soil in my fridge. In American English, this should say “grounded”.

For more on the differences between American and British English, visit Jeremy Smith’s extensive American – British / British – American Dictionary.

Belgian Trade show announcement

“Zwei Wohnzimmer von Unternehmen von Gesellschaftlicher Wirtschaft” (Two Living Rooms from Business Economy Companies)

The French original was “2ième Salon des Entreprises d’Économie Sociale” or “2nd Expo of Social Service Businesses”. A computer “gisted” an uproarious title in German. Is the “gist” of your text really sufficient to convey your message?

Swiss advertising agency’s web site, translated by machine

“Grope along forwards.”

The original German was a play on words that justified the line to the copywriter in the original. But in English, without the double entendre, it’s just a very bad way to approach a web-surfing potential client. Whether insulting or self-deprecating, it’s a line no anglophone would ever use to attract a client.

“How did you find to us? Over a search machine? No miracle! Our proclamation service brings also your Site under the Top Ten of the search results — and as result up to 60% more visitor .”

No need to explain this one. It’s understandable, even if it brings a smile to the reader. But is this how you want your well-written original copy to read in other languages? Understandable, but the reader will have to “grope along forwards?”

The bizarre thing is that this site was otherwise very professional. The link to an online translation program appeared to have been set up as a joke, though this wasn’t necessarily apparent to the reader. What was clear, however, was that the machine translation made the agency look like a joke.
Hang Tag from Sweet Day Shoes

translation bloopers

translation bloopers

And you thought “pure ovality” was impressive! I confess, I don’t have a clue as to what this means or where it was written. But it gets the message across beautifully: we don’t speak your language!

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5 Comments on When it comes to translating, it’s the little things that count.

  1. Stacey Derbinshire on Sun, 27th Jun 2010 18:22
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  9. rachat on Sat, 25th Dec 2010 06:31
  10. J’ai appris des choses interessantes grace a vous, et vous m’avez aide a resoudre un probleme, merci.

    – Daniel

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