Some phrases just don’t translate-especially when you are relying on a computer to do the heavy lifting. The International Trade website has published a list of English business phrases that don’t translate well, and it illustrates this point beautifully.
Take, for example, the common English expression “give me a ballpark figure.” Translated into Russian literally, as a computer would do it, you get “Give to me the diagram of the baseball stadium.” Unless you’re in the baseball stadium construction business, that simply won’t do. In Spanish, “We’ll hit the ground running” turns into a phrase that brings to mind an action movie: “We will strike the earth operation.” The best of the bunch is probably the literal Chinese translation of the phrase “We need to get our ducks in a row.” Once translated, it becomes “We need to obtain our duck continuously.” What?!?!
So, how do you avoid sounding like an idiot when you deal with foreign clients? The best course of action is to avoid machine translation if at all possible-it simply isn’t reliable enough yet. If you do need to use machine translation for a business project, write in simple language, avoiding metaphors, figurative language, jargon and colloquial expressions.
Richard Brooks, General Manager of UK based translation firm K International, has the following advice for UK businesses:
“Idioms are common place in workplaces across Britain and its fine (within reason) to use them in your local marketing activities. The tricky part comes in when you need to translate that message for use in another region.
Computers (at the moment) simply cannot understand the real meaning behind these idioms. For copy, that when translated is intended to convert potentially interested parties into sales revenue then a real human being must be used in the translation process.
For the best results recreating your message for use in another country a service such as transcreation should be used which includes incountry testing and cultural focus groups.
Get it right and you’ll have a winning marketing campaign that will spread like wildfire (excuse the idiom) in the blogs and social media networks, get it wrong and people will think you’re an idiot”
Assuming you have a competent interpreter, human-powered translation is always superior because human interpreters recognize expressions like these and know how to translate them appropriately to convey the correct meaning.