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While I am travelling across Europe with my family. I will feature a guest post that I really like. This one is authored and provided by Affordable Language Services, a Cincinnati-based business translation and interpreting company.

In today’s global economy, business translation is a must for companies wanting to extend their reach. To help keep costs down, however, some choose to use automated translation software instead of hiring the expertise of a professional business translator. While this choice is initially less expensive, the consequences of such a shortcut can be costly. Keep reading to learn why you should not use software for your business translation needs.

 1. Translation software is never error-proof.

 In 2010, a Reuters article told the world about the underlying dangers of relying on automated software for business translations. The news story highlighted a pharmacy that used such software to translate prescription labels that were written in English into Spanish. After reviewing the results in the medical journal Pediatrics, Julia Tse and Dr. Iman Sharif pointed out several deadly errors. For example, in English, the instructions told patients to take a pill “once a day.” The translating software failed to translate the word “once” into Spanish correctly and instructed patients to take the medication 11 times per day, as the word “once” in Spanish means “eleven.” A professional business translator would never make such a mistake.

 In a separate incident, when a medical group used translating software for prostate medication labels, four prostate cancer patients in Epinal, France died because of the erroneous dosage instructions. Regardless of advances in technology, business translation software can never take the place or match the accuracy of an expert human business translator.

 2. Translation software is not sensitive to idioms.

 Language creates meaning as much as it conveys meaning. A culture in one part of the world thinks differently than the culture on the opposite end of the globe because of the ideas that differ between words and phrases. For example, the English phrase, “on the other hand,” does not mean “alternatively” in most other parts of the world.

 When brewing company Coors once tried to sell its beer in Spain, it directly translated its marketing slogan, “Turn it loose,” into Spanish. While English speakers in the U.S. understand the phrase as an encouragement to have a good time, the literal translation in Spanish relates more to the “loose” action one may encounter with diarrhea.

 3. Some words simply don’t exist in other languages.

 When a word doesn’t exist in the destination language, translation software cannot help. A business translation professional has an understanding of the culture that speaks the desired language, so he or she can accurately express the vocabulary and ideas. While an equivalent word may not exist from one language to the next, a business translator bridges the lexical gap with an appropriate phrase.

 An example of such a word is gobbledygook, which exists only in the English language. Every language has its own unique words that automated translation software cannot translate. Such a translation blunder can hinder a company’s bottom line or encourage foreign prospects to not close a deal. Professional business translation services understand these circumstances as well as the culture of the language at hand, and can provide clients with high-quality translations that aid business communications. 

 4. Automated translation software is not dialect-specific.

 In the U.S., the storage space in the back of a car is called a trunk. In the U.K, the same part of the car is called a boot. Language dialects differ around the world – and even by region. For example, some of the words used in Mexico have a different meaning in Spain. Among the 30 languages in India, there exist more than 2,000 dialects. These differences make business translation more challenging and create greater room for error when using translation software. Because business translations require specificity, a translator must know the differences among dialects to properly convey the intended meaning. Specificity and cultural knowledge are things that automated translation software lacks. 

 5. Literal translations usually don’t make sense.

 There are a few occasions when you can successfully translate a phrase into another language word-for-word. For example, the Spanish phrase “sangre azul” means “blue blood,” and both phrases refer to wealthy individuals. Most of the time, however, literal translations make no sense and confuse the true meaning. Oftentimes, idiomatic phrases are to blame. For example, when you ask someone in Costa Rica how they are, they often say, “Pura vida,” which literally means, “Pure life.” “Pura vida” in this Latin American country is a statement that expresses one is well. Outside of the Costa Rican culture, saying one has a pure life can convey a handful of different meanings.

 6. Translation software neglects sophisticated writing techniques.

 Automated translation software does not pick up on wordplay, puns and metaphors the way a human business translator can. If you use software, you run the huge risk of having your ideas get literally lost in translation, which can ultimately make you look foolish, culturally insensitive or both.

Lynn Elfers is the CEO of Affordable Language Services, a Cincinnati-based business translation and interpreting company that specializes in business, legal and medical interpreting and translation services in over 150 languages and dialects. Lynn’s experience as a volunteer missionary for years in Central America ultimately led to starting her own translation service to help individuals bridge the language gap in crucial situations like the doctor’s office and court room. She has been providing language tutoring and translation services for over 16 years.

Swedish Translation Services is a company owned by Tess Whitty, a freelance translator (English-Swedish), proofreader, editor, copy writer, localizer and entrepreneur.


  1. Diana Coada says:

    I’m with you, Fabio!

    And I think that there is a big difference between ”dumbing down” the text for an audience that is unfamiliar with the subject matter and calling things by the wrong name.

  2. This choice is initially less expensive, the consequences of such a shortcut can be costly.

  3. Fabio Said says:

    Am I the only person who is irritated by the unqualified use of the expression “translation software” in this article?

    As a translator – just like, I assume, many of the readers of this blog – I am inclined to think of “translation software” as computer-aided translation software, NOT “machine translation”, which is the established term for what the article is about. So the article’s title seems out of place. If one wants to educate clients, it’s always best to name things right. Otherwise you risk generating more confusion and, in the case of the article, you might be leading people to think that all translation software is bad for business translation, which is not true.

  4. Catharine says:

    I was initially surprised by the title, however when I started reading I realised that the article is aimed at the general public, and the software being referred to is Machine Translation and not CAT tools!

    • Tess says:

      I agree with Fabio and Catharine somewhat on the choice of words here, but as Catharine says, it is aimed at the general public, and thus the more general term. Perhaps it would have been better to use the proper word for comupter aided translation tools and machine translation tools, with an explanation. Perhaps the author wants to provide her own comments, but I do agree with the points in the post.

  5. […] Posted by Tess on Jul 10, 2012 in Business, Localization, Machine Translation, Translation | 0 comments […]

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