• Carlie Sitzman MA, CT

Translation Errors That Aren’t Errors


It is common for multilingual laymen to look at a translator’s work and exclaim enthusiastically, “Wait a minute. They translated that wrong! The source text makes mention of a cat, yet the target text does not!” There are indeed a lot of bad translations out there. Being a professional translator myself, however, I often wonder if these linguistic sleuths have truly found an error or are simply unfamiliar with the translation process. Professional translation is a very complex technical endeavor that requires in-depth cultural knowledge, thorough fluency in both the target and source language, and professional knowledge of translation theory. Rather than aiming to translate every word, a translator’s goal is to ensure the meaning of both texts within their respective cultural contexts matches. Read on to pull back the curtain and catch a glimpse of how this works by examining five instances where literal translation itself would be a translation error.


1. Translations of Idiomatic Expressions

An idiomatic expression is a phrase whose actual meaning is quite different from its literal meaning. When you say “He conveyed the message without beating around the bush.”, you are most certainly not referring to an incident involving a bush. What you really mean is that he got straight to the point. Similar phrases exist in other languages, but they often use very different imagery. In German, you might say “He conveyed the message without speaking through the flower.” If a translator were to encounter a sentence about “beating around the bush”, they might therefore rephrase it in German to say something about “speaking through the flower.” Not only would a literal translation sound very silly, but it would not convey the message effectively.


2. Context-Related Translations

It may not be possible to translate words directly if the literal meaning differs due to the context. You might see a different translation depending on the cultural connotations behind the word. Translating the American term “Black Friday” directly into another language, for example, would sound very awkward. In reality, the Friday after Thanksgiving has nothing to do with the color black and more to do with the rampant spending on that day and profits the companies see. It would make no sense to translate this term directly into German as “schwarzer Freitag”. In fact, it might even sound depressing that way. The translator would have to research a similar day in the German-speaking world to compare it to or make up a descriptive translation that would be understandable from a German cultural perspective.


3. Translation of Fixed Expressions and Lists

Some documents, expressions, and terminology have direct equivalents in foreign languages that are seemingly unrelated on a linguistic level. Take the “fire triangle” as an example. In English, the “fire triangle” or “combustion triangle” refers to the three elements required in order for a fire to start – oxygen, heat, and fuel. In German, the title of the fire triangle translates somewhat literally into “Verbrennungsdreieck”. The list starts off with a similarly literal translation of “oxygen” into “Sauerstoff”. It becomes less literal in its translation of “fuel”, which is rendered as “brennbarer Stoff” or “burnable materials”. Even further from the literal meaning is “heat”, which is replaced by “Zündenergie“. This literally translates as “ignition energy”. “Hitze”, which is the direct translation of “heat”, is not used. It should also be noted that “ignition energy” is also a much broader term than heat, since it encompasses heat, mechanical sparks, and electricity as well. Seen from a purely linguistic point of view, “Zündenergie” would be a bad translation of “heat”. Within the context of the German fire triangle, however, “Zündenergie” is simply the term they use where an English speaker would use “heat”. If applied to the fire triangle, a literal translation has the potential to render this well-known concept unrecognizable.


4. Translation of Titles

Any time a title is translated, you have to first determine the goal of the title. Do you want people to be able to find the organization later? Do you want people to know what the organization does? People may understand what the organization does if you simply translate the title word-for-word, but they may not be able to find the organization later. They may be able to find the organization, yet have no idea what it does if you leave the title in German. Furthermore, the organization itself may have already had its title translated. It would then be important to use whatever terminology they are already using for themselves. As a result, translating a title is rarely a matter of transferring the literal meaning of words. It is more important to maintain consistency and help people connect with the organization in a meaningful way through your translation.

5. Translation of Words Without an Equivalent

Some foreign words may not have a direct translation in another language. When this happens, the meaning of the word must be creatively incorporated into the text, which sometimes gives the impression that the word was forgotten by the translator. One example is the German word “beziehungsweise”. If you look up this word in a German-English dictionary, it might tell you the word means “respectively, or rather, and accordingly”. There are, however, many instances where none of these translations are viable within the context. If you look up this word in the German-German dictionary, it might say the word means “or, or rather, more precisely, and in another case”. Often none of these will fit coherently into the context either. The translator is then left to puzzle out a way to incorporate the gist of “beziehungsweise” without including any of the official dictionary translations in the final text. The final product is sure to be smooth, accurate, and understandable. Those looking for a direct translation, however, may fear that “beziehungsweise” has been left out.


These are just a few of the many instances in which the seemingly “correct” literal translation may not be appropriate at all. A good translator will make sure the proper meaning shines through all the same.


Have you encountered translation errors before? What kind of error did you see? Comment below.

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