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Shoddy translations turn can a successful product launch into a commercial flop. So, if you want to get your money’s worth, it’s imperative that you get things right the first time. Choosing the right translator, even if they come with a bigger price tag, is a big part of that. Fixing the aftermath of an incorrect translation is typically far costlier than paying higher prices from the get-go. As Kurt Vonnegut once said: “You get what you pay for.” But, sometimes, even the priciest translator can be selling cheap machine translations. In this article, we’ll teach you how to spot a swindler a mile away.

Hope You Like Horror Stories!

While some mistranslations simply earn raised eyebrows, others can lead straight to lawsuits and bankruptcy. A recent article by the BBC outlined some famous, and costly, translation mistakes:

  • Schiaparelli’s Close Encounters: When Giovanni Schiaparelli thought he discovered channels on the surface of Mars, he dubbed them ‘canali.’ While this word has many meanings, his peers quickly settled on one that implied water: canals. This drove astronomers to waste decades hypothesizing about life and rivers on Mars.
  • A Bank is Proud of An Unforgivable Sin: Few companies know the true costs of faulty translations like HSBC bank. In some countries, translators twisted the company’s slogan, “Assume Nothing” into the more slothful “Do Nothing.” As a result, HSBC ended up dishing out more than $10 million dollars.
  • Carter Got Way Too Friendly with Poland: In a 1977 trip to Poland, President Carter’s translator managed to turn him from president to pervert. In his opening remarks, Carter proclaimed that he was happy to be in Poland. What the Polish audience heard, however, was that the President was overjoyed to ‘grasp at Poland’s private parts.’ Due to these, and many other translation faux pas, old Jimmy quickly became the country’s punchline poster boy.

Signs of a Below Average Translator

Unless you want to end up like HBSC or Jimmy Carter, it’s important to vet your translator ahead of time. While we want you to find the best translator for your money, we also want you to avoid falling into the clutches of the worst ones. When you open the bidding process, watch out for people who:

  • Charge Rock Bottom Prices: Lower than average prices might indicate that a translator uses cheap machine translations, cripples your budget with fees, or offers low-quality work. So, if they charge less than $0.05 per word, you should start looking elsewhere. If you really need someone that cheap, however, make certain to do all your research up front.
  • Claim Unrealistic Return Times: If a translator tells you they can turn around a month-long project in 24 hours, it’s a sign that they’re lying, unaware of your project’s full scope, or using machine translation. Avoid these efficiency ‘super-stars’ at all costs.
  • Communicate Sluggishly: Test the responsiveness of your translator before signing that dotted line. Send them a few questions. Call the listed cellphone number. If they take days to respond, it’s a sign that they’re busy, disinterested, or disorganized. If they can’t handle an email, why should you hand them your global reputation?
  • Don’t List Any or List Poor Customer Reviews: While no one wants to be a sheep, there’s something to be said for the wisdom of crowds. A key part of choosing a translation vendor is researching the company’s prior work. Most decent translators list customer reviews right on their website. If you can’t find any, it’s a sign that the company is either untested or hiding a string of dissatisfied customers. When you find nothing but complaints, you should run the other direction. While it’s important to take customer testimony with a grain of salt, these tidbits can give you a pretty good understanding of a company’s quality and ethics.
  • Lack an Official Quality Process: If a vendor’s page does not mention proofreading, editing, or quality assurance, it’s typically a sign of trouble. Always ask your translator about what they do to double-check their translations.
  • Claim to Do It All: John Gowers summarized this point perfectly in 1390, when he denoted a character as a ‘Jack of all trades, but master of none’. A translator who claims to be capable of everything often lacks specialized, technical knowledge. These statements indicate a vendor who is either desperate or overly confident in their abilities.


Spotting an incompetent translator can be harder than playing iSpy blindfolded; this is especially true for companies and individuals new to the translation market. If you keep the above points in mind, however, you should have a much better shot. And, if your company cannot get a qualified translator to bite, it might be time to reevaluate your budget or cast a wider net.

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

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