How Translation Can Go Horribly Wrong

Translation MistakeTranslation errors are common all over the world. Sometimes they are harmless and funny; sometimes they are just plain embarrassing; and occasionally they can be downright misleading and potentially dangerous. The mistranslations are usually due to amateur translators being used to save money or because a professional translator was never used to do the proofreading.

Examples of the embarrassing kind are plentiful. Here’s one that made Swansea Council in the United Kingdom a trifle shamefaced. All over Wales, road signs are normally bilingual: English and Welsh. The reality is that there are many more English speakers than Welsh ones and there are quite a few people whose understanding of Welsh is not as good as it should be. That of course doesn’t excuse this particular translation error.

The Swansea Council wanted to put up a sign barring lorries (trucks) from using a road that was close to a major supermarket. The council actually had its own in-house translators who were normally used to do any translations required, including road signs. An email was sent to the translation team asking them for a Welsh translation of the English version of the road sign and duly got a response. The road sign eventually went up in English and Welsh. The only problem was that the Welsh version said “Sorry, I am not in the office at the moment”. Welsh lorry drivers were a little confused about the sign and many outraged Welsh speakers sent photos of the gaffe to a well known Welsh language magazine.

The sign was removed and changed, but a spokesperson from the magazine said it was quite common to see mistranslated Welsh signs. Cyclists along a rural Welsh road were amazed to pass a sign which told them in their language that they “had an inflamed bladder”. One can only guess as to how that particular mistake was made. Another sign told English readers to “Turn Left” while Welsh readers were urged in Welsh to “Turn Right”! One wonders who made the right decision and where the others ended up!

The editor of the Welsh magazine Golwg said that the problem was not that there was no intention of translating the two languages, but Welsh translators were clearly not used properly in vetting the final signs – a matter of poor proofreading rather than poor translation.