A Beginner's Guide to Translation Errors

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 »  Articles Overview  »  Art of Translation and Interpreting  »  Translator Education  »  A Beginner's Guide to Translation Errors

A Beginner's Guide to Translation Errors

By Roomy Naqvy | Published  03/14/2006 | Translator Education | Recommendation:
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Quicklink: http://arm.proz.com/doc/619
Roomy Naqvy
անգլերենից հինդի translator
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Beginner’s Guide to Translation Errors

This article has been drawn from my personal experience as a professional translator and as a teacher of undergraduate students where I have taught a translation course for the last two years. The focus of this course is bilingual English-Hindi. The article aims to summarize some findings and present them in a succinct form for those who would be venturing out in the world of professional translation.

A translator would make a number of errors during the learning process. They could range from the grammatical, syntactic to larger issues of localization. In this article, I propose to categorize the errors made into four broad types, namely, (i) grammatical errors; (ii) mistranslations; (iii) localization errors, and (iv) errors of inconsistency.

One has told college students, who are beginners in the world of translation, and who study the Certificate Course at the University where I teach that errors dealing with grammar and mistranslations are simply to be avoided even for a novice translator. If these two errors are made, one cannot even be qualified to be called as a translator. Therefore it is essential that these errors should not creep into one’s practice.


Grammatical errors would be characterized as errors dealing with the grammar of the target language, including errors of usage, collocation, syntax and tense. It may sound funny to even imagine for a professional translator that someone could make linguistic, grammar-based errors while translating but the fact remains that people do make them. The problem with translation as a profession or industry is that it is largely unregulated and is an empowering process. The moment one translates a document, one feels a great sense of achievement and the client who commissions the job almost rarely knows about the target language, unless the target language is a European one. The problem of grammatical error essentially crops up due to less exposure to the target language but the person who makes the errors is usually unaware of the magnitude of the problem. In the context of Indian languages with respect to English, there are certain typical problems associated with the influence of the ‘first’ language. [I have deliberately avoided the use of the term ‘mother tongue’ or ‘native language’ because in the Indian situation, things can be quite multilingual.] As far as I know in most Indian languages, if not in all, the present progressive tense is normally used in every case but it is not used in English. For instance, one says, 'main tumhe sun raha hun' [I am hearing you] but in English, it gets transformed into ‘I hear you’. Even in Gujarati, the same –ing form is used. When one does this exercise in the classroom, one discovers it is true with other Indian languages as well.

But there could be other errors that one may not have factored in. All Indian languages have the structure S-O-V [Subject-Object-Verb] but English has the S-V-O structure, which may lead to syntactical problems in users of English who haven’t had a good education in the language. However, these days, with the fast paced growth of the cities, one does not find students making errors of syntax in English but one does find a large prevalence of errors in tenses and prepositions. Errors in prepositions are seen because of a weak formal English education. Moreover, anyone who uses the grammar-translation method for learning English is destined to face problems.


The second category of errors could be classified as mistranslations, simply an oversight or an arrogant act or plain ignorance on part of the translator. At the simplistic level, this would be similar to translating the word ‘pen’ into the word ‘marker’ or ‘pencil’, which is a patent case of mistranslation because the semantics of 'pen' are very different from 'pencil'. This is usually seen as an error that stems from an ignorance of the language or the subject matter in the novice or the fact that the novice does not possess sufficient lexicographic tools or is unwilling to be humble and use the dictionary. It is important for the novice to use the dictionary constantly. Other examples of mistranslations would include, ‘bus’ for ‘tram’ [it is possible that some countries or cities do not have trams; New Delhi does not have trams but that is no excuse for the error], ‘tome’ for ‘book’ or ‘booklet’. I have obviously taken simple examples here but in the case of difficult or ‘foreign’ concepts, this would always be true. One can find examples of mistranslations anywhere, ranging from literary translation [where they seem to abound in great number] to any leaflet under the sun. In literary translations, the problem of mistranslations is further accentuated simply because the translator is ignorant of the source language and culture but refuses to accept this fact.


The third category would be errors that are linked to the localization of language. Before one continues, one would like to pose a question: What is the role of translations in the human civilization? The answers should be obvious to any experienced translator. The translator's role is to bind people, countries and races. It is in that sense a very ennobling profession. Moreover, translations have played an important role in the European Renaissance of the Fifteenth century and the Indian Renaissance of the Nineteenth century. Thus, it is important that translations are communicative as far as possible. If a translation is unable to communicate itself to the end and intended audience, it's value must stand diminished.

The errors pertaining to localization take place due to the fact that the term to be translated normally does not exist as a concept in the target language. One such example would be the simple, innocuous looking term, 'subway'. India did not have pedestrian subways few years ago. They did not exist in the major Indian cities. Then the subways were constructed. In New Delhi, the Indian capital and the center of the Hindi heartland, where I live, I saw the term 'subway' written in English, with a picture of the subway, which essentially meant a kind of ladder shown there, and along with it, one found a Hindi translation. It is noteworthy that till subways made their presence felt, the language did not have a single term for it. So, soon, they were translated into 'bhoomigat paidal paar path', which meant 'an underground pedestrian path used for crossing the road'. There were two problems with this translation done by 'official' translators, most probably working for the Government of India as Hindi officers. One, the translation was an explanation of the term but well, that could be forgiven keeping in mind the fact that the term did not exist in Hindi. But there is an even bigger problem here. It is a problem of localization. The subways have been in existence for about ten years or longer in New Delhi and they have always had the Hindi translation along side the English version. But when I ask my students, who are about 19-22 year olds and have lived all their lives or most of their lives in the city, and who grew up speaking Hindi at home, they do not seem to comprehend what the Hindi translation 'bhoomigat paidal paar path' means. This means that the translation does not reach out well. If it cannot reach out to undergraduate students, even those who join up for a translation course, it should speak volumes about what kind of reach this translation would have for the man on the street, who hasn't been to college.

Another example of the importance of localization is from a personal experience. I was translating an inflight menu for a major airline company through a translation agency. This was the first job that I was doing for them though I had been translating inflight menus for over three years when we got in touch. In the menu, there was this simple term 'dessert', something sweet that you eat after your meal. I transliterate it was 'dessert' in Hindi for two important reasons. One, the concept does not exist in Hindi and secondly, the transliteration would make sense to the end audience as this menu was only to be given to business class passengers on an international flight. But when it went to the proofreader, the term, which occurred some three to four times in the menu, was encircled in black as an error. The company asked me to explain. Now, there were semantic problems with the term that the editor had used. The editor had used the term ‘mishthaan’, which does not denote the various facets of the word ‘dessert’. For instance, fruit salad, quiche or soufflé would not be included in the suggested term but they would all be part of dessert.


The fourth category of errors that one might observe could be classified as errors of consistency. These could create major problems in certain kinds of translation, whereas they may not be important in other types of translation but at the highest levels of professionalism, a translator should not commit any of these errors.

For instance, while quoting from the experience of translating documents dealing with mobile telephony, one would come across a very simple lexical item, ‘light’. The word light could be translated as light in Gujarati as in ‘tubelight’ or in other lexical items. But it could also be translated as ‘prakaash’ in Gujarati or even as ‘chamak’ in a particular context. In fields such as mobile telephony, technical consistency assumes a great degree of importance. Look at this situation where I am working for one end client, a mobile phone company that manufactures mobile phones and they want the Gujarati or the Hindi which I have been translating consistently for them. So, if in January 2006, in a document, I translate the word ‘light’ as ‘light’ in Gujarati in one document, I cannot translate the word ‘light’ as ‘prakaash’ in the month of February 2006, even though it is a separate document that I might be translating at the moment.


Errors concerning grammar, mistranslations and localization errors should be completely avoidable in any translation as they will render a translation unusable. Errors of inconsistency should also be normally avoidable but it is possible that the novice may make them. There are some subjects such as mobile telephony, medicine or law where errors of inconsistency may be fatal. But in certain subjects such as the translation of literary texts, the same ‘errors of inconsistency’ may even be considered as part of the translator’s license or as an embellishment of language. One hopes that novices would find the article of some use and that they would work with more diligence.

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