Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard got egg foo young on her face with the release of the Australian Government’s Chinese translation of a white paper, “Australia in the Asian Century.”
Chinese readers claimed that the white paper translation “contained broken sentences, grammar and syntax errors, inappropriate vocabulary and incomprehensible expressions,” reports Samantha Maiden in Sydney’s Sunday Telegraph. One anonymous Chinese student in Australia was quoted in the paper, “It’s kind of unbelievable. I was ready to cry when I read it. It just looked like they asked some random University student to translate. It is reasonable to suspect that the person who translated this white paper relied heavily on Google Translate, not their Asian language skills.” (Tears aside, “Smells like MT” is always the last refuge of amateur translation critics.)
But the translation really was awful. Problems went beyond poor word choice. Meaning was changed in translation — the cardinal sin of our trade. For shame!
So “highly skilled workforce,” is translated as “army of labor.” The term “pathways” was somehow localized to refer to a famous mountain in Hunan province. Nice touch.
Fortunately or ironically, depending on your point of view, the white paper itself urges greater efforts on the part of the Aussies to learn Chinese. Fair dinkum. Right now, more Australians are studying Latin than are studying Chinese, and it shows. Which suggests that the Prime Minister’s office is fine communicating with the Vatican, in contrast to their cluelessness in Chinese.
Chinese>English translator Phil Hand sums up the view of the translation industry on the proz.com forum. “I’m shocked, I tell you, shocked. Because standards are normally so high in my pair. How could this have happened?”
Officials have adopted the “a dingo ate my baby” defense, claiming that they used an approved translation service who managed to screw it up anyway.
But that’s not really where the translation buck stops, is it? For such a bad job, we can be pretty certain of a failure cascade, rather than just a single screw up. Let’s imagine… Policymakers unable to complete bloviation by deadline, so the schedule slips. Translation as an afterthought. Ad hoc recruitment of a translation service by an unqualified purchasing agent. Lack of coordination with agency to set up a workflow that includes a review by China experts, if such creatures exist Down Under. (I think the Aussies have a Foreign Ministry, don’t they?) Straight to press without a proof. And a vendor who lets it happen. Sounds like standard operating procedure to me, and not just Down Under, but up over here too.