“Women without rules”: mistranslations can be funny, but they can also be dangerous.

4 weeks ago

The chances are that you have been in that difficult situation abroad when you are trying to communicate to someone in a language other than your own, but you can’t quite remember the right word.

You’re holding up the other customers in a busy Spanish bar as you rack your brain but the only word that comes to mind is a similar, yet wholly incorrect homophone, homonym or other false friend.

You apologise to the camarero for having taken so long to order your cerveza and in your British manner tell them earnestly that you are embarazada. This rather personal announcement may raise an eyebrow if you, like me, are male.

This kind of minor embarrassment (not embarazada, which means pregnant), is normal during the early days of learning a new language.

The trial-and-error method of practising new languages is a normal way to experiment with new vocabulary and is unlikely to insult or endanger a listener waiting to sell you some bread in some European market.

However, once proficiency in a language is reached, these types of innocent mistakes will normally disappear. This is especially true in the case of professional translation. If you decide to train to become a professional translator, then a sufficiently high level of understanding of a second language, and perfection in your own, is required to avoid mistranslations in written translations.

The professional human translator has to become highly skilled at interpreting the meaning behind a text to ensure that the translation captures the intended meaning of the author, and not just provide a literal rendition of the original.

The excellent work of these high-quality translators largely goes unnoticed, since the goal of the translator is to produce translated content as though it were written in the language of the author. On the other hand, inexperienced translators or substandard Machine Translation (MT) output often make the headlines for the wrong reasons.

The latest company to have made a public translation faux-pas is Amazon, after they launched Amazon.se, the flagship Swedish version of their website.

The online retail giant has had to scramble to correct their product listings, having incorrectly translated some product names and descriptions on the Swedish site.

The mistranslations were amusing in some cases and outright offensive in others:

Video game 'Watch Dogs 2' became 'Look at Dogs 2', one user pointed out, also highlighting other gaffes including an airfix box containing models of Russian Infantry becoming 'Russian infants' while Nintendo's video game console - the Nintendo 'Switch' - became the Nintendo 'Circuit Breaker' he said

As a side note, it’s ironic that since nearly 90% of Swedes speak English fluently, visitors to the website may have been better served by the English, non-translated version of the site.

The mistranslations have been doing the rounds on social media but the publicity will no doubt help Amazon promote their service in Sweden. They are generating plenty of amusement among the translation community in particular.

Behind the funny mistranslations is a lesson for those who wish to use automatic or substandard translation resources.

Automating the translation process without appropriate QC measures in place could have catastrophic effects were the examples above to be replicated in a Patient Information Leaflet (PIL), or Instructions for Use (IFU).

It’s not that mistranslations in medical translations are impossible, it’s just that human translators have enough experience, not to mention the ability to judge context with little supporting data, not to let errors of the type we see above enter their translations.

If similar translations were used in patient information for medicines/devices, could we see patients with cold-like symptoms (constipacion) taking medicines for constipation? Could we see hamburger patties ordered to surgical theatres instead of the surgical patties they need for fluid management? Could UK English dosage instructions see patients taking a medicine with every cup of tea instead of taking once a day at tea-time?

We have even seen a patient described as a ‘mujer sin reglas’ [woman with amenorrhoea] in a patient report, which was translated inspiringly as ‘a woman without rules’.

The opportunities for misunderstanding in medical translation are vast, this being a highly diverse field with many specialist areas of expertise. However, human translators (working alongside appropriate technologies) are the front-line of defence against commercial disaster and untold dangers to patients arising from poorly translated medical information.

Amazon may well benefit from the old adage, ‘any publicity is good publicity’, and these errors in Swedish will be quickly resolved by their team. However, our colleagues in the medical world cannot afford to take such risks.

So as not to fall foul of too many ‘kuks’, Dora Wirth (Languages) Ltd. will keep the ‘human touch’ in our Swedish translations for the time being.

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