Let’s All Be Translators — Colm Ryan

A translator who cannot translate properly is like a mechanic who is unaware that diesel won’t make a petrol engine go or a brain surgeon who thinks the brain is located in the pelvis….

Guest Blogger Colm Ryan has a few choice words to say in favor of that much-maligned component of translation: quality.


Way back in the early 1980s, there was a popular graffito that went: “Yesterday I coudnt even spel executiv. Now I are one.”

If you replace “executiv” with “translater,” that 1980s graffito suddenly starts to ring frighteningly true today. It is my sad and sorry duty to inform you that the translation industry is full of people who not only cannot spell, they also cannot understand the foreign language they profess to be able to understand, and—rather more worrying—they cannot write in the language they grew up speaking.

A translator who cannot translate properly is like a mechanic who is unaware that diesel won’t make a petrol engine go, or a brain surgeon who thinks the brain is located in the pelvis, or a milkmaid who can’t find a cow’s nipples even with the aid of a handheld bovine nipple locator that beeps as it gets closer to its target and features an illuminated display that flashes “COW NIPPLES DETECTED – MULTIPLE HITS” in glowing red text. (The comparison is not unjustified. If you think about it, a good bilingual dictionary provides about this level of detail.)

We translators don’t just translate porn subtitles and clock radio instructions, you see: we also translate laws, contracts, and international treaties. We translate lists of ingredients that are closely scanned by people with allergies. We translate blueprints for rockets, the results of drug trials, and—remember this if you ever need to go to hospital while you’re in a foreign country—we translate the operating instructions for complex medical equipment.

That alone should be sufficient to impress upon you just how cataclysmically frightening this situation is.

You’ve may already have figured out that this article contains some of the translation howlers I’ve come across in my work. Recently, in fact, our translation agency received a commission to translate a book on the history of sport. As is common practice in these cases, we gave aspiring Italian-to-English translators a short extract to translate before considering them for the job. Below are a couple of sentences from the extract, on the history of tennis:

I reali d’Inghilterra lo praticarono intensamente, nota era la passione di Enrico VIII per il gioco: la sua seconda moglie Anna Bolena venne arrestata per adulterio mentre assisteva a una partita del marito a Hampton Court.

For those of you who aren’t experts in Italian, here is a translation that would be considered “very good”:

The English royals played it incessantly. Henry VIII was famously fond of the game; and his second wife, Anne Boleyn, was arrested for adultery as she watched one of her husband’s matches at Hampton Court.

You need to know a couple of things before I continue. First, the verb assistere (as in “mentre assisteva a una partita” in the extract above) here means to watch or to witness. It’s a classic false friend, but one that all translators from Italian would be expected to know.

Second, there is no confusion possible in the original Italian that Ms. Boleyn was committing adultery while hubby was playing tennis. No: it clearly means that she was arrested while hubby was playing tennis. The kind of howlers I’m going to show you aren’t of the predictable “Anne Boleyn was discovered in flagrante delicto by the Tudor adultery police while she watched her husband play tennis over the shoulder of her manly lover” variety. Even bad translators aren’t quite that bad. (I hope.)

Here, then, are some entries we received. All errors have been carefully retained from the original tests submitted to us.

The royal family of England practised it intensly [sic], Henry VIII’s passion for this game was well known; his second wife Anna Bolena was arrested for adultery while she was watching a match of her husband in Hampton Court.

(Ask yourself: who, in the English-speaking world, doesn’t know that “Anna Bolena” has an English spelling?)

The royal family of England use [sic] to practice it intensely; known was the passion of Henry VIII for the game….

(More than a touch of Google Translate in that one, methinks.)

… his second wife Anna Bolena was arrested for adultery in the middle of a game with her husband at Hampton Court.

(Anna Bolena rears her ugly head again, and this time she’s actually playing tennis. Sigh.)

The game was intensely adopted by the English Royalties and Henry VIII was an avid player: his second wife Anna Bolena was arrested for adultery while assisting her husband’s match at Hampton Court.

(I can see her business card now: “Anna Bolena: Ball Girl to the English Royalties.”)

These are just four of no fewer than ten failed tests. You’ll be glad to hear that we did finally find someone to translate the book who can read fairly simple Italian (this text is by no means difficult) and who can write reasonably well. But now let’s give the translators who failed a chance to defend their work. After all, maybe they just had a bad day.

Here’s the reply we received from the author of one of the above tests, when she discovered she wasn’t going to get the job:

I am very suprised [sic] and disappointed at your comments. No one has ever refused my translations in my eleven years of translation work except for [your company] who do not seen [sic] to want to work with me.

And that, in every possible sense of the phrase, was all she wrote.


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14 Responses to Let’s All Be Translators — Colm Ryan

  1. Rose Newell says:

    Very enjoyable reading. Yes, I’ve done a fair bit of proofreading, and some translations have contained some amusingly bad translations.
    One translator once translated “ordentliches Gericht” (court, court of law would be best, competent or ordinary court might be acceptable) as “tidy court”. It left me with images of what an untidy court would be like – the jury throwing crisp packets across the room, judges sticking chewing gum on their desk, and the witnesses leaving their half-consumed sandwiches and mugs of teas on the stand.
    I am glad you found someone good in the end. Thankfully it was not left to some poor proofreader to clear up the mess!

  2. My hope is that machine translation will take dross merchants such as these out of the market (why pay for a crap translation when you can get one for free?) and leave it to those of us who do know what we’re doing (and to customers who know a good translation when they see one – and value it).

  3. “I am very suprised [sic] and disappointed at your comments. No one has ever refused my translations in my eleven years of translation work except for [your company] who do not seen [sic] to want to work with me.”

    I myself am very surprised that any company would hire such a translator, except of course if there was no-one fluent enough in the target language to see this lady’s errors, mistakes and shortcomings.

    I don’t do Italian anymore (lost most of it after having learnt it for 3 years), but the meaning of the source text is clear enough IMHO – there’s not much room for “interpretations”.

  4. Julian Vertefeuille says:

    Dear Sirs,
    as a freelance translator living in Italy, I have been on the Langit list for about four years, but came across the link to your most useful and inspiring blog for the first time today.
    My only, heartfelt comment is:
    Thank you for existing!
    J. V.

  5. Great post, Colm. I get so angry with translators who churn out this kind of junk. It’s unfair to clients, and it’s unfair to translators who do a professional job.
    By the way, the next time you need to translate a sports text from Italian, let me know – my first ever translation job was as in-house translator with the Italian Olympic Committee (CONI), many moons ago:).

  6. irina says:

    I would like to know whether you offered this translation to native English speakers only.

  7. Sylvia Gilbertson says:

    Many years ago I proofed a text that described a medieval castle topped with “merletti.” Now, this term can be translated in a few ways when we’re talking about medieval architecture – crenellations and battlements are a couple of strong possibilities. But – the Italian word for blackbird is “merlo,” and so this person had translated “merletti” as “little crows.” A castle surmounted by little crows. Really.

  8. Hi Colm,

    Indeed, excellent posting. It’s nice to know one is not alone. Unfortunately, your observation is becoming more and more the norm. Many years ago I heard a woman telling her friend how she was now in her sixth week of learning Italian and was applying as an Italian/Dutch translator. “Oh,” her friend said, “is your Italian already that good?” “No, but with the Internet, it doesn’t really matter.” I had to get off the tram or I would have smacked her.

    I’ve often got the “no one’s ever complained about my translations before” response to feedback on a translator’s work. My standard reply is that the customer probably doesn’t speak a word of the target language and hence can’t judge. I used to think being a translator was cool. Now I’m almost ashamed to say I am one.

    In reply to Irina’s question about native speakers: I really don’t want to jump the gum on Colm’s reply, but I’ve seen translations from non-native speakers English speakers whose translations were far better than those done by natives. There’s a really fine line here that has to be tread very carefully.

  9. @Sylvia
    So often, standard Italian dictionaries have incorrect translations for common birds.
    I remember having to break the news to a crestfallen Italian nature film director that the voiceover on his video which talked about “windhovers” and “Cavaliers of Italy” would not go down too well at the nature film festival he was putting it in for that week…
    It bombed.

  10. My favourite translation is on the information board for the small, Romanesque church of Barbadelo, on the Camino de Santiago in Galicia. The architectural term for the bit above the door is the tympanum, but the poor translator obviously looked in the dictionary and seeing that ‘tímpano’ was a bit too close to that opted for the other option: ‘ear drum’. Many confused pilgrims go into the church looking for the statue of Christ on the ear drum!

  11. Alejandro says:

    Excellent post, Colm. I specially like the way it starts.

  12. Pingback: The Invisible Translator Strikes Again! « Patenttranslator's Blog

  13. Pingback: Translators | Language Arts and Science LLC

  14. Elisa says:

    I am not a translator thus I know English and French well enough; I work in an import/export office and I deal with international managers of clothes brands who I think should know English a lot better than me.
    Here is the mail I received yesterday:
    Dear Elisa,
    thank you very much for the two revised offers you sent us this morning. To get the approval, I forwarded its both to our accounting office.
    I like your blog, I wish YOUS all a nice day!

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