International Business: Irony: Magazine mistakenly adds Google mistranslation to article about translation

Published: Friday, March 4 2011 7:00 a.m. MST

A regional business magazine added a creative design element to an article I wrote about translation. Ironically, that design included a translation error generated by a machine translation program, and the article, titled “Lost in Translation,” became self-descriptive.

The day the magazine arrived at my office, I was excited to see the new article about translation. In the table of contents, I found the title and opened to pages 22 and 23 to read “Lost in Translation: Preserving Brand Strength in Foreign Markets.” I immediately noticed that the article was somewhat different from my original – the title had been changed and some paragraphs had been removed for length, as often happens in print media.

However, 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.

I first asked a colleague, a localization project manager whose native language is Chinese. She looked at the Chinese graphic and noted that the characters displayed, “迷失東京,” actually mean “Lost Tokyo.” Tokyo? Like most English idioms, “lost in translation” is a difficult phrase to translate, but what in the world did it have to do with Tokyo? How did the magazine come up with this mistranslation?

A quick check revealed that the translation was created with the free online machine translation program known as Google Translate, but why would Google suggest a translation about Tokyo? The automatic program had produced an actual Chinese title of the 2003 film Lost in Translation, starring Scarlett Johansson and Bill Murray as two people figuratively lost in — ah ha — the culture of Tokyo, Japan. Film titles regularly require flexible translations like this, which is fine for films, but the content of this magazine article had absolutely nothing to do with the movie.

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. Yikes!

Even worse, the following excerpt from the article specifically warns about the perils of both misusing machine translation and publishing translations without editing:

“Another way to impair your global marketing message is to sidestep human translation in favor of machine translation. One restaurateur in China attempted to retrieve an automated translation of his restaurant name on a day when a machine translation engine was apparently not working. With no review by a professional Chinese-to-English translator, the restaurateur posted a large sign above the storefront that read, ‘Translate Server Error,’ a peculiar name for a restaurant.”

Adding to the irony of the situation, the article appears in a section titled, “Lessons Learned.” All international businesses can benefit from learning a few of the following lessons before they suffer the consequences firsthand.

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