The Everyday Perils of Bad Translation

Bad English often isn’t the product of a poor education. Today many manufacturers, particularly overseas, use low-grade machine translation to translate instructions and product information. The results are fodder for many humorous websites. Usually, we readers decipher the poor English and move on with our lives. (Tembua sometimes converts the publishers of bad English to clients with our English polishing service.) But sometimes, bad translations can affect their readers’ lives in sudden, unexpected ways.

Last weekend, I was at the sewing machine working on a bridesmaid dress for one of my daughters. While no expert, I am an experienced seamstress and understand garment construction well. I had laid pieces of a complicated lining together in the intuitively correct fashion, but I checked the pattern instructions just to be sure. I was surprised to see that according to the instructions, I had one of the pieces upside down. After pinning and repinning the slippery silk together twice, I read the German of the multilingual pattern and learned that what had been translated into English as “right sides up” should have been “right sides together”—an entirely different meaning. I only lost ten minutes figuring that out, but somewhere I’m sure there are less experienced sewers ripping out seams because of that bad translation.

When I told a friend about that error, she chuckled and said, “Yup, just like my candle.” It turned out she had bought an herbal medicine candle for headache relief. The directions told her to light the candle and inhale the aroma deeply. It went on to say that her headache would “gradually increase and then disappear.” She reads enough French to know from the instructions in the column beside the English that the headache was not, in fact, supposed to increase but to decrease.

We laughed together, but mistranslation to an antonym is no joke. Medicine has been recalled at great expense when its directions for use have contained errors in the translation. International court cases have been thrown out because of translation or interpreting mistakes.

There is an appropriate use for the wonderfully convenient and free machine translation services, and Tembua gladly helps friends and clients determine when that is. We also tell them point-blank when free MT may be a serious liability, and then Tembua’s human translation teams go to work—to decrease, not increase, the headaches in our clients’ business!


About tembua

Tembua: The Precision Language Solution provides comprehensive linguistic services for 100 languages to private industry and government agencies on a global scale. Services include document and website translation and localization; conference and 24/7 telephonic interpretation; glossary development; proofreading, text adaptation, editing, multilingual design and DTP; transcription; technical / custom authoring editing, foreign search engine optimization; translation memory management; subtitling.
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