Lost in translation? Not on my watch!

When I was eight years old, I wrote a letter to the author of one of my favorite children’s book series. The books were about a second grade girl who’s mischievous and kind of catty. I felt an instant kinship to this diminutive diva and went on to tear through dozens of novels in the series. Wasn’t it only natural to write the author and express my enthusiasm for her oeuvre?

Perhaps — but that’s not why I wrote the letter. I wrote to inform her of a chronological discrepancy introduced by one of her books (the protagonist’s birthday didn’t match the established timeline, ugh).  Even at that age, I knew this criticism had to be couched in diplomacy. Thus, I started the letter with a paragraph about how I was a huge fan (true enough), then went on with a gentle “but I noticed….”

As I grew older and learned about fun stuff like the subjunctive tense, writing etiquette, and typography, my fastidious drive to correct the world’s textual blunders only intensified. Meanwhile, diplomacy fell by the wayside. I was fully prepared to wage war with a red marker and disapproving glare.

Disclaimer: there was a cake - not a person - in front of me.

If you use “who” when you mean “whom,” I WILL cut you down. (Disclaimer: there was a cake – not a person – in front of me.)

This tendency didn’t help me make many friends, but it did help me make a little bit of money last year. When I was managing translation projects at a company in New York, one of my responsibilities was proofreading translated documents against the corresponding source documents.

Now, the only languages I can read and write are English and French, but – in addition to these languages – the documents I worked with could be in Greek, Danish, Spanish, Chinese, Russian, Dutch, Swedish, and pretty much every other written system of communication known to man. My goal was to make sure that translations into or out of all of these languages were accurate.

When I tell people this aspect of my former job, their brows furrow. How the heck did you do that? they’d ask. In response, I’d beg off by saying it was really hard to explain without specific examples.

Well, I finally photographed some specific examples at the Beijing airport a few months back (come on, what does everyone else do while waiting for a connecting flight?), which I’ll now use to elucidate the proofreading process.

Okay, it's a Corona hat.

Thinking caps are all the rage in Paris. I promise.


It was like a game.

When I received the translations, they had already been proofread at least once, if not twice, by a linguist (industry term for “translator” or “proofreader”) fluent in both the source and target languages. My job was to pretend to be a hypercritical client who didn’t necessarily speak either language but who could spot potential errors.

I would print the source document and put it alongside the translated document, then skim both line by line. If I spotted something that looked weird to me, I’d flag it and send it back to a linguist for review. Sometimes the flagged item would turn out to be completely fine, or just a feature of the language. Many times, it would be turn out to be an error which the linguist or I had to correct.

Errors could fall into any of the following categories:

  • missing or extra text / content
  • spacing
  • punctuation
  • formatting and alignment (bolding / italics / underlining / highlighting, font style and size, bullets, tables, graphs, logos, page layout, etc.)
  • mismatched numbers
  • inconsistent translation of identical source text
  • failure to use client-preferred terminology or reference text
  • singular versus plural errors
  • spelling and grammar errors (to the extent that you can decipher either language and its rules)

In the following examples of Chinese-to-English translations, I will ignore most spelling and grammar errors to better illustrate the kinds of errors you can catch if you do not know either the source or target language.


Example 1:


You’re here. You’re really here? Somebody’s still reading this?!

This one is pretty simple. Identical Chinese text is translated inconsistently on two different signs (“You’re here” vs. “You are here”). Also, the first sign switches between putting Chinese characters on top of Latin script and Latin script on top of Chinese characters. While that might be okay for a very brief translation like this sign, such inconsistency gets really confusing throughout longer documents (it’s also inconsistent with the style of the second sign). Finally, the Chinese character corresponding to the number “3” is present in the first sign but not at all in the second sign.


Example 2:


You’ll need a red marker.
And a blue one.
And a — aw, just bring the whole box.

Red circles: In the top two red circles, the Chinese uses a slash (/), while the English uses an ampersand (&). This would only be acceptable if the slash mark did not exist in the English language or if it meant something different from the Chinese slash mark, thus necessitating its replacement with an ampersand. Moreover, since there’s spaces before and after the slash in the Chinese text, I would question whether there should also be spaces before and after the conjoining punctuation in English. This issue reoccurs in the red circle at the bottom-right. This time, an ampersand appears between “jewellry” and “watch” with no corresponding punctuation in the Chinese text at all.

Pink circles: Note that in the pink circles, the sets of Chinese characters corresponding to the words “watch” and “jewellry” do not match (the only identical character is the last one). This is an instance of differing source text being translated the same way, which is suspicious. It could indicate that the translation is off, but it’s also possible that the source text says the same thing in different ways (either by using different terminology or by using Traditional Chinese in one instance and Simplified Chinese in another). Either way, this requires an explanation.

Yellow circle: When we look at the Chinese in the first pink circle, it seems that the last two characters correspond to the word “jewellry.” In the second pink circle, one of those characters appears again at the end. That indicates to me that – in the yellow circle – the word “jewellry” should appear after “watch” instead of before it. Otherwise, the ordering of “watch” and “jewellry” in the first pink circle is wrong.

Blue circles: Double whammy! Here we have two instances of translations from Chinese to English for the words indicating “bookstore.” Neither the Chinese characters nor the English translations are consistent with each other. Nice!

…Not really.

Crazy eyes!

Fortunately, a lot of people I worked with were halfway around the world, so I couldn’t subject them to this look of desperate fury.


In this last example, I’ll pretend to be flagging some items for a linguist to check, so I’ll just write a few words about my concern or question in each instance. (Usually, we worked in Microsoft Word so we could track changes and comment back and forth.) Afterwards, a linguist would return the document either justifying the flagged items or fixing them.

You will pay for this wifi with your soul

This dude wouldn’t be so happy if he could spot all the errors.

Green circles: Inconsistent spacing before and after colons. Please check throughout the doc.

Purple circles: Usage of quotation marks inconsistent. Possibly missing in the first instance and later instances use differing styles of quotation marks.

Pink circles: Shouldn’t technical acronyms “SSID” and “IE” be present in the English translations? Also, it looks like “SSID” got replaced with “WiFi” in the English — is that ideal?

Orange circles: Period after fourth Chinese list item, but no period after fourth English list item.

White circles: Numbering alignment issue.

Blue circle: Capitalization in “WIFI” is inconsistent with all other instances of “WiFi” throughout the doc.

(As in the other examples, these are just a subset of the errors one can spot in this document. Yes, there are others. For the sake of brevity, I’m not going into all of them.)


Anyway, the author of the children’s book series wrote me back.

She thanked me for my effusive praise and included a black and white photo of herself. Her signature was squiggled in one corner with a felt-tip marker. I’ve faithfully kept the letter to this day.

As for the error I pointed out? She said she was working on it.

In the end, that was all I’d expected. Just as I adored the author, I admired the hard working translators and proofreaders with whom I collaborated. It’s okay to be lost in translation (we all are occasionally) — as long as you try to find a way out.


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