Disastrous Outcome of Inaccurate Translation
In my career, I saw hundreds of disastrous mistakes, resulting from poor reading abilities, limited background knowledge, carelessness or the inability to interpret the meaning from one language into another. Take this as an example: A linguist translates an item from an Arabic blog in which the poster on the blog describes a dream he had. In the dream, the poster sees himself attending a lecture by one of his favorite professors, who was calling for forming a secret movement to wage a war against a friendly nation, as “commanded by God.” Though the poster made it clear that this was only a dream he had, the translator overlooked this fact- more likely because he did not understand the source text- and wrote the following headline for his translated piece: “Country X Has Secret Plans to Wage a Holy War Against Country Y.” Considering that these two countries were on the verge of fighting each other, this piece could have worsened the relations between the two countries, to say the least. Fortunately, the mistake was caught before the item was published.
Translation is anything but easy. It requires a certain degree of general knowledge in world events, leaders, countries and much more. It also calls for excellent linguistic knowledge in both source and target languages. A linguist, who lacks one of these basic elements, is a risk to the company, to the client and to himself.
Sometimes, a mistranslation might not be as serious, but it can definitely be embarrassing.
Take this example:
A part of a statement issued by an insurgent group included a sentence that read as follows: “The jihadists left to Ard al-Ribat [the frontiers or the outpost], refusing but to knock at Heaven’s Gates with their skulls.” [Language usually used by Muslim warriors, talking about their determination to fight until they die as martyrs].
The linguist, who was assigned this job, misunderstood more than one word in the original text and mistranslated it as follows: “So, set forth to the land of ties and victory and answer [the call] for they will strike their skulls against the gates of insanity.' The linguist did not only display poor knowledge of Classical Arabic, which he tried to cover up by adding words that were not in the original text, but also showed lack of common sense and commitment to the product, by writing a meaningless sentence and not attempting to make sense of it.
In case one wonders how these mistakes in the above example were made, here is what happened. The translator interpreted the word “jinan” as “madness or insanity,” as used in his country, Egypt, whereas in Classical Arabic and in light of the context, it meant “paradise” or “heaven.” He also did not understand the meanings of Ard al-Ribat , and the expression "Heaven's Gates" due to his obvious limited knowledge of Islamic expressions and Classical Arabic. In other words, the above mistake resulted from failure on part of the linguist to understand the original and interpret it into the target language. An amateur translator may make mistakes at this stage due to erroneous reading of the source item either due to his/her failure to understand the thinking process of the author of the source item, or lack of knowledge in the subject matter.
Addressing the problem of mistranslation:
Unless this problem is addressed at every level of the translation process, a company is taking the chance of publishing a poorly translated piece. It is very difficult for a recruitment manager or a client to determine the abilities of a linguist just by giving him/her an assessment test. Many linguists take the time and exert the effort to produce a good translation piece when trying to get a job, but they fail to display the same commitment after being hired. This suggests that extra care must be given to hiring linguists. A general knowledge test should be part of the assessment test, if not in every field, at least in the field of the business in which the linguist will be working. A good qualified linguist is likely to produce a good translation. However, my experience proved to me over and over again, that even the best linguist can make mistakes. This is where the vernacular editor comes in [A vernacular editor is an editor who has a good command of both source and target languages]. A good editor should also have an inquisitive mind, like a good linguist, that makes him constantly search for knowledge and the best word that gives the most accurate meaning. Otherwise, a final product can have the most embarrassing mistake, such as the following example:
An Arabic linguist was translating a piece about Egypt and its Former President Jamal Abd-al-Nasir. The piece read as follows: “Egypt and its ‘Jamal’ were the pride of the Arab World.” Because Jamal in Arabic also means “beauty” and since the linguist who translated the piece was a young Arab from another Middle Eastern country, who seemed to know very little about the history of Egypt, translated the text as follows: “Egypt and its ‘beauty’ were the pride of the Arab World.” The linguist stripped the piece of its meaning and every reference made in it to the role played by Jamal Abd-al-Nasir. When the piece went to a non-vernacular editor -who did not read or write the source language- it was only natural for him not to notice the mistake in the English text, since there were no grammatical mistakes.
Translation mistakes occur every day, but their seriousness should not be underestimated. Every linguist and project manager must aim at producing accurate translation in order to communicate the translated material faithfully and correctly. Books can be written about the subject. Sometimes, when my frustration with poor translation reaches its peak, I comfort myself by promising to turn these mistakes into a humorous book when I retire one day. In the meantime, I intend to include these mistakes in my training books, to help future linguists recognize and avoid them. All services are available nationwide. .