Translation and Interpreting in 150+ Languages
“Lost in Translation” Found on Google Translate
March 27, 2011 - By: - In: Machine Translation - 5 comments

“Lost in Translation” sucks, and I’m talking both film and phrase. Each time some not-so-clever editor is searching for a headline on anything related to translation, they turn to the hackneyed title of what has to be the most tedious and caricatured portrayal of Japanese in Hollywood since Mr. Moto Takes a Chance. As a headline, not only is it a discredit to the translation profession (we prefer “found in translation”), but it is shamelessly overused, which will partly explain its constant appearance on the pages of this blog.

Adam Wooten of the Globalization Group recently discovered the hard way that “Lost in Translation” is sometimes “Lost in Translation,” at least in the hands of an art director within keyboard reach of Google Translate.

In Irony: Magazine mistakenly adds Google mistranslation to article about translation, Adam describes that sinking feeling we all get when we discover that a translation has gone south. Turning to the front page of his just-published article, he discovered that the magazine graphics guys had added some translations of unknown provenance…

“I became concerned when I saw large, bright, red text splashed across both pages in six languages. Where did these multilingual phrases originate? I knew Globalization Group, the translation company where I work, had not provided any translations. These phrases were apparently supposed to be translations of the article title, ‘Lost in Translation,’ but something about them did not look right.”

The Chinese translation, 迷失東京, stuck out like a sore thumb to Adam, since you don’t have to read much Chinese to recognize that those last two characters have a lot more to do with Tokyo than with translation. A quick check on Google Translate confirmed the source of what Adam calls a mistranslation. Which is doubly ironic, since the Chinese phrase, which literally means “Lost in Tokyo” is also a perfectly correct translation of “lost in translation,” because 迷失東京 was the title selected by Chinese distributors when they inflicted that tedious rich-girl bio-pic on unsuspecting Chinese audiences. The remorseless power of a stupid meme.

“My concern over the gaffe turned to horror as I realized many of Globalization Group’s clients, potential clients and competitors were reading this magazine. A good number of these clients speak Chinese and various other languages, so they would see the blunder, unaware it was the magazine’s own creative ‘improvement,’ and incorrectly assume Globalization Group and I had incompetently provided bad machine translations.” Triply ironic was that the article appeared in a section titled “Lessons Learned.”

I agree with Adam’s assessment.  “This painfully ironic mistranslation is an opportunity to learn the following lessons: prevention is better than retraction; high-quality translation requires use of professional human translators and editors, not misuse of machine translation; and everyone who might touch published text must learn these lessons to prevent translation blunders.”

Good “Tiger, did you learn anything?” answer from Adam, so there’s probably no point in sending anonymous clippings to his clients, but I am always delighted whenever a competitor makes a mistranslation. So I’m retracting the Nelson laugh and closing with all the Mr. Moto-like  irony I can muster.

“So sorry regarding the translation error of your publisher, Mr. Wooten. So very, very sorry.”

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