Capital Language Solutions | Basic translation mistakes: Grammar

Basic translation mistakes: Grammar

1. September 2015

translation mistakesI will never understand how often the most basic translation mistakes make it through the review process and end up being published. How do we feel when we read something peppered with the most basic errors? What kind of impression does this create for a company’s prospective clients, partners or employees? Why do some companies not seem to take anywhere near the same level of care in sourcing translated texts as they do with crafting the originals?
In this blog post I’ll be taking a look at some of the most basic grammatical errors I have found recently—examples from real websites operated by some pretty big companies. In order to protect their identities, I have amended or redacted the texts. What I haven’t tinkered with are the actual mistakes, some of which are so elementary that you have to ask yourself how they ever made it on to a live website! Read on to find out more.


You have specific requirements, specific content and a specific context

Nowadays, most companies (and freelancers too, for that matter) have websites, Facebook pages, printed material, and so on. Of course, providing all of this written information requires not only industry-specific vocabulary, but also the most appropriate voice and communication style to engage a designated group of target readers. A great deal of effort (and money) is channelled into producing these materials: content is selected and agreed upon; pictures and photographs are commissioned; layout and graphic design are fine-tuned; website functionality is honed, etc. Why is the same care not always taken with foreign-language content?
For a number of reasons:
So much time and money have already been spent on producing the original content that management imposes strict restraints on the sourcing of foreign-language versions. Tight budgets and tight deadlines often mean that quality suffers and corners are cut. But who wants to give the outside world the impression that they cut corners and are happy with sub-standard work?
Some businesses might even be forgiven for thinking that as their industry’s terminology has largely been co-opted from English anyway, and there are some dictionaries and glossaries lying around on a shelf in the office that stand a reasonable chance of being correct, how difficult can it really be? One of the company’s secretaries might even be a Fremdsprachensekretär/in, never mind the fact that they gained their qualification 15 years ago. Please stop and ask yourself, “Would I take similar risks in other strategically important areas of my business?” I didn’t think so.


Some perfectly imperfect examples of translation mistakes

This is the very first sentence on a German company’s website:
Since 15 years ABC GmbH acts as an established xxxx in yyyy.
As we all know, the German language has a very different way of dealing with activities or states that stretch from the past into the present and beyond. Whoever translated this sentence seems to have done so on autopilot, ignoring all the rules of basic grammar. They have succeeded in producing a sentence that will have anyone who visits this website immediately reaching for their browser’s the back button.
The first problem:

Since is used to indicate the starting point of actions, states and events still underway (e.g. I’ve been here since 07:00 this morning. We’ve been in the translation business since 2007. I haven’t spoken to him since last Wednesday.) The word does have other uses, but let’s stick to the point at hand.
We use for to indicate the amount of time, i.e. the number of years, days, hours, etc., a state, action or event has been underway (e.g. I’ve been living and working in Berlin for more than 14 years).
The second problem:

When using since or for in this way, we can’t use the present simple tense. The verb “acts” is questionable in and of itself, but even if we are convinced it’s the right verb, we need it in either the present perfect (has acted) or the present perfect continuous (has been acting).


We can ask ourselves a number of questions as we decide which one to use. “Is the verb a state verb or an action verb?” “Do we want to place a particular emphasis on the activity or the length of time involved?” “Do we even need another verb?” “For XX years, ABC GmbH has been an established xxxx in yyyy,” seems quite acceptable, after all.
The problems with this website don’t end there.
“ABC GmbH delivers xxxx in applying its ‚yyyy‘ approach.”
First problem:

I may be interested “in applying” for something, a job for example, but I might stand a better chance of success “by applying” the knowledge and skills I have picked up elsewhere before I do so. For non-native speakers of any language, prepositions are among the trickiest, most frustrating and illogical words. If in doubt, do some research—there are online corpora and search engines that can help in any moment of need.
Second problem:

German speech marks work „like this“, English speech marks work “like this”. A similar problem often exists with translations involving numbers and currencies. One million in German is “1.000.000,00”, whereas in English it is “1,000,000.00”. The commas and points (or periods) are reversed, With the symbols for currencies, €, $, etc., you also have to watch whether you have place them before or after the number.

Two more examples of translation mistakes

“Actually, ABC GmbH assets under management..”
Actually, what I believe the writer was trying to say was, “Currently, ABC GmbH…” or “ABC GmbH currently…”
“ABC GmbH proofs a track record of…”
Simply bad, bad, bad. I have to keep reminding myself that these are real texts from real websites.


What to do?

If your company wants to improve its employees’ language skills, great! It is a valuable, worthwhile investment.

But—it will take some time to bear real fruit.

My company, Capital Language Solutions, would be delighted to help you organise classes!

If you need a well-written English version of a German text, you can either roll the dice and hope the person within your company with passable English is struck by the lightning of inspiration, or you can contact us and we’ll be happy to provide you with a competitive offer.

English has perfect Perfect Tenses, so why not use them?

I am an experienced translator, as well as being a language teacher, examiner and teacher trainer. I have been teaching general, academic and business English to German-speakers in Berlin since 2002. I have been working with my business partner, Richard Mayda, on a continual basis for more than a decade.
See what I did there? Not so hard, was it?

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