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Common Mistakes In Translation


Traduttore, traditore! (Translator, traitor!). Translator is an honorable job as it can bridge cultures to cultures. However, more often than not, it is because of translators that cultures drift apart, for there are irrevocable mistakes that turn the translated texts into laughing stocks for the readers in the target language. Below are some of the most common mistakes in translation.

Author: Thomas Viet - Nguyen Quoc Viet

                1. Word-by-word Translation

This is an error that most translators are guilty of having made. In some cases, especially in languages which belong to the same language family, word-by-word translation is possible as the syntax of both languages have some resemblances. However, in the case that the translators are working on languages of very different word orders, word-by-word translation could lead to gibberish sentences. An example would be Irish and English. Irish have VSO word order, meaning the verb goes before the subject. This means that the sentence “I love you” in English is roughly rewritten as “Love I you” in Irish. Therefore, failing to take the syntax into account in translation could result in disastrous sentences.

2. False friends

False friends are, by definitions, words that look similarly between two languages, but have completely different meanings and are not the translation of one another. Amateur or reckless translators often make this mistake as they are not wont to use the dictionary carefully, resulting in assumptions of the words’ meanings. A famous example of this case is the case of the word “library” in English and the word “librarie” in French. The former refers to a place where one can read and borrow books, but the latter refers to a bookshop only. Thus, a vast and comprehensive vocabulary is necessary for every translator.

3. Translation style

This is a rather subtle error that even professionals make from time to time. When one translates a text, it is imperative that the not only the text itself but also the style be translated into the target language. A formal, business text has to retain its formality without omitting any information. Perhaps it is this error that distinguishes a good translator from a bad one, as only a person with immersive knowledge on the target culture could produce a good translation in term of style.


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