We Translate Words into Business
Life or Death Translation
by Terralíngua      Posted in  October 13, 2016

Life or Death TranslationIn some fields of translation, mistakes may cause embarrassment and turn out to be costly, but can be quickly rectified without causing harm to customers. Some lost-in-translation stories even make us laugh, as in the case of the bank that wanted their catchphrase to be “assume nothing” but it was unfortunately translated to mean “do nothing.”

However in certain fields, errors can be more than just bloopers; they can cause injury, physical harm, or even death. In one real-life example, translated surgical procedures erroneously stated that cement wasn’t needed, when in fact it was, leading to a large number of failed knee replacements. Or piece of equipment with an incorrectly translated operator’s manual could mean a fatal mistake to the user, just by following instructions.

It can be tempting to use free translation services or automated web-based machine translations. The old adage rings true – one gets what one pays for. There is no one assuming risk for detecting errors in these translations or assuring their fitness for use.

It is vital that translations, especially those with risk, are completed by professionally trained, experienced translators. To not use a qualified resource required to ensure accuracy at every step is a prescription for a corporate horror story. Is your “free translator” certified? Is your bilingual co-worker a professional translator with errors and omission insurance? Do you want to risk using a “free” translation service, especially if there are serious injuries that could result? Probably not.

A professional translator is more than just someone who has studied and speaks another language. Translation is a skilled craft. Someone may know a language but this does not mean he or she knows the proper way to present the same message in another language. They may be able to speak fluently but do they have the correct writing skills such as grammar and spelling?

Professional translators in many countries are required to have advanced courses in the language as well as translation in order to obtain a degree. In addition, many business, community, and governmental organizations that utilize translations have their own certification requirements. Professional agencies that employ translators have standards and testing procedures to further ensure ongoing quality controls.

As well as meeting general education and certification requirements, many professional translators specialize in certain subject matter areas. This can sometimes involve a great deal of additional skill, training and education. Many industries require not only an in-depth knowledge of both the source and target languages, but also field knowledge. Industry background may include fields such as heavy machinery or medical experience.

You may think you can rest easy if someone states they have field experience. Sweet dreams can turn into a nightmare if not vetted. What level of experience and knowledge does your translator have?

For example, just because someone has medical experience does not mean they can handle all related translation such as chemistry and pharmacology. Medical translators may have translations related to pharmaceuticals, which can include research and findings related to drugs trials, drug data and applications for new drugs coming to the market. Or they may translate research papers and other academic documents for publication in medical journals, or instruction manuals for medical instruments, materials and devices. Someone may state they have experience with medical translations which could mean that he or she translated physicians’ notes for patient records, information for patients, newsletters, or web sites for medical companies. Who will you hand the scalpel to when handling your company’s localized content?

When making decisions regarding your company’s message, you carefully control your content with many reviewing and signing off before publication. However when it comes to the translated version of this documentation, many carelessly turn over their content to distributors or in-country staff to “do what they will” to sell their product. They assume that the same care will be given to the translated version that was used to create the source documentation. Free rein to remove, change or add content is implicitly given when the editable files are turned over, unless there are controls in place to ensure consistency with the source documentation.

What is the unforeseen “trick” when you think you have a “treat” of free translation? Will the price be your company’s reputation? Or will the cost be something as priceless as a human life?


Terralingua is an ISO certified translation agency that adheres to LISA standards. We work only with professional translators with industry experience. Our processes, from terminology management and translation through formatting, are certified to ensure quality. Please visit our website for further information.

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