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Professional Translation and How To Avoid Flying Naked


Why is it important to have a professional write and translate your product?

In this era of new technology and immediacy, it is easy to get carried away with the specialized tools available to get the work done. But remember, they are only tools, which means they are only as good and effective as the person who uses them.

The same thing happens with free translation tools such as Google Translate, or even with professional tools such as Wordfast or SDL Trados. There are a number of automated tools for translation, but if used alone, they can be more harmful—or comical, for that matter—than useful. In 1977, an airline promoted leather seats in its first-class sections with the slogan “Fly in leather.” It was translated into Spanish as “Vuele en cuero” (a literal translation), which really means “Fly naked.” The biggest danger with automated tools is that they tend to translate literally and word by word.


On the other hand, knowing how to speak two languages is not the same as knowing how to translate. A quick online search shows that Mandarin or Cantonese seem to be the most likely languages to result in nonsensical commercial signs when translated into English.

Here’s another example. A “help wanted” sign in a store window could become “find job” in Spanish not carefully translated. And if translated literally, the “help wanted” sign would not make sense either, because it could be interpreted by a native Spanish speaker as either the owner saying that “help is dear,” or “somebody is needed to lend a hand, with no pay involved” (not to mention the odd sentence construction). Yes, there is a certain level of interpretation a professional translator needs to apply in certain cases, but it is not a license to change the message.

A professional and experienced translator will know when and how to use the tools available to get the most accurate result. He or she would be careful to understand the intended meaning and interpret the message in the target language, while remaining loyal to the source language. A professional is aware that a word can have multiple meanings, and the context in which it is placed will determine which meaning is being used. While the same message is being conveyed, it has to also sound natural in both languages. A translator’s expertise lies in knowing both cultures, when and how to take advantage of the translation tools, and choosing from a glossary the most accurate and appropriate word.

Ultimately, if we leave it to a machine to decide, aren’t we risking changing the message? Hence the expression: “lost in translation.” That is the difference between a professional translator’s work and translations done either by machine or by a person that is simply bilingual.

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