The Case of the Translations that Reek of Butter

by Translation Guy on November 30, 2011

“Wash hands before meeting with customers” is the sign next to the sink in the 1-800-Translate men’s room, just like in the scrub rooms of some of our big hospital clients.  Translation, like medicine, requires thorough preparation and meticulous attention to detail. When I make my rounds I wish I could wear a white lab coat with a stethoscope around my neck, so my clients would understand that I’ve come with the cure. Because when Translation Guy limps into the ward on his cane, it can only mean one thing: a customer in pain.

So tonight, a case  from the files of  “Dr. Translation Guy, Word Whisperer,” with the catchy title, “Linear Translation Syndrome Diagnosis and Treatment.”  WARNING! This is not some rare disease that people only catch on TV. This happens every day. It may even be happening to you right now!  (Remember what I said about Translation Guy and customer pain? I leave no stone unturned.)


Current Japanese translations “reek of butter.” Infected by source syntax and structure, presenting awkward style  and exhibiting general evidence of translation,.  Patient reports that the be rewritten by staff every time they comes back from the current language service provider. Despite best efforts, the current translation service has not been able to come up with Japanese that doesn’t stink of source language contamination. Numerous previous attempts to get to a less “translate-y” output from various vendors have not been successful. There is a translation memory, but no style guide or glossary. Translators are not responsive to reviewer changes.

Diagnosis: Linear Translation Syndrome, Stage IV, Chronic

Recommend Course of Treatment:

1.     Create a translation memory and glossary and style guide. Even a few lines can save a lot of trouble later. Client participation may sometimes be required.

2.     Always use the same translators so they can translate based on their prior experience and deeper understand as they become familiar with client requirements. No pools.

3.     Test translators. This is particularly important in Japanese, since poor style among Japanese translators is common. Editors and project managers with editorial literacy are required too, and are not so easy to find in the US. Many US multi-language service providers do not have the Japanese language expertise to detect bad style.

4.     Create a robust feedback loop so that any errors are not repeated, and rules and expectations of good style in the context of a professional translation process are shared among all: translators, PMs on client and vendor side, and client-side reviewers.


If these elements are executed competently, good, well styled translation is the usual result. But if we still aren’t getting the results we are looking for, additional steps are available.=

5.     Do an adaptation, which is where we make changes that may affect meaning  to make sure the overall communication objectives of the translation are achieved. This can be done by a properly qualified and briefed translator, or by a copywriter doing a rewrite of the original translation. One client, for example, we use a  Japanese-speaking American copywriter to put the final polish on much of their already translated English work, turning translation into copy.  Some clients have found  that was the only solution that really met the high quality goals they had for their message).

6.     Work more closely with client reviewers, by providing a professional framework for their amateur editorial efforts. Client reviewers are encouraged  to communicate directly with our translators, by email or phone conference, so that their issues can be addressed directly, native-speaker to native-speaker. We also are big on providing worksheets and support to reviewers to help them do a better job with less frustration.

“Has the patient been saved, Dr. Translation Guy?” the young doe-eyed intern asks.

The Word Whisperer crushes some vicodin into his Chablis, slugs it down, slams his glass on the examination table.  “That’s the wrong question. We are not talking about a patient, but a prospect. A crucial distinction, since prospects are often not compliant.” Whisperer looks at the blinking monitor next to the iv. “Damn, the pipeline is only at 50%. We could lose him!” He slams his cane against the gurney, knocking loose a catheter full of translation memory, spraying the examination room with misaligned translation units. And fade to credits. To be continued….


  1. Wilber says:

    Excellent discourse as always. And amusing. I look forward to more.

    Substance/content aside, I notice you’ve glommed onto the spreading “whisperer” conceit that suggests some kind of borderline magical ability to tame or subdue, to resolve refractory or recalcitrant objects and entities, or (where relevant) to heal the afflicted. Etc. It certainly does resonate. Google searches lead to sites like Book Whisperer, Cat Whisperer, and even Bra Whisperer (I didn’t look at that one). So a whole lot of people have adopted the Robert Redford-inspired moniker.

    I did the same thing myself not long ago. In my case, The Syntax Whisperer has to exercise arcane skills to disentangle tortuous Mobius-strip- or Klein-bottle-configured passages of guttural alien prose and render them lucid.

    So be it. No one has a monopoly. Anthropologists call it “cultural diffusion.”

  2. Wesley Shaw says:

    I agree, use the same translators for the client. They will only get better and more efficient at getting the desired translation.

  3. Number 6 – Working more closely with client reviewers in very important. This gives them a sense of importance, and that they aren’t just another job. It shows you care about what you are doing and that you want to make sure the final product is what they are expecting. Right on the money.

  4. Baboo says:

    Much to think about here. Thanks

  5. Crystal Tate says:

    Sounds like you are channeling a little Dr. House here. Very funny. I enjoy reading your blog and keeping up with your insight on translation.

    • Ken says:

      Dr. Bones and Dr. Translation Guy both share a love of vicodin, so I guess we got the same kind of dopamine uptake channel, if that’s what you mean.

      Cane-waving seems like a fun way to work more translation best practice into the blog while keeping things more readable (and more writable for that matter).

  6. Shaggy says:

    Great opening paragraph! Very funny! I love the way you wrote this one.

  7. Rosie says:

    Feedback is important, just as using the same translators for the same client every time. This allows for learning and increased efficiency, rather then starting from scratch everytime you assign a different translator.

  8. Testing translators is a pretty good idea. I know that if I had a something very important to translate I would want to make sure the translator could handle it before I signed them up.

  9. Ronnie Levin says:

    The more I read you blog the more I am impressed with your knowledge of translation. You always seem to have the right answer. Thanks Translation Guy.

    • Ken says:

      Thanks for believing, Ronnie.

  10. Eliza says:

    I can’t imagine having to translate something in Japanese. I don’t speak it, but it just seems like such a complicated language with the characters. I can imagine translations are often not what was hoped for, as any tourist to Japan can attest to when reading much of teh English over there. Anyway, it looks like you have the right procedure for getting the patient back on there feet! As always, I appreciate your insight on the translation gig.

  11. Sounds like this is the type of thing that needs attention to detail from actual translators. A problem that machine translation wouldn’t be able to fix, but only create.

LiveZilla Live Chat Software