10 Common Translation Errors & How to Avoid Them

Language is meant to bring people together and diversify cultures, but malaprops, or the incorrect use of words, have the opposite effect. Simply put, your brain is translating thoughts into language, albeit incorrectly. Whether you are planning a trip to a foreign country or want to learn a new language, this post covers common translation errors to help you avoid making the same mistakes.

This is where professional translation services come in; offering reliable, thorough translations to ensure your message is conveyed accurately to your audience. In our years of experience at English to Spanish Raleigh, our native Spanish-speaking translators (who are equally as fluent in English) have seen—and corrected—our fair share of translation errors. Here, we’ll break down the 10 most common translation errors and how to avoid them. 

a woman on her laptop learning about translation errors

1. Translating Too Literally 

One of the most common translation errors is literal translations without considering factors like context, differences in sentence structure, or common idioms. This can lead to the resulting translation that sounds unnatural in the new language, and that doesn’t convey the meaning of the original. 

To avoid this, it’s crucial to have a translator who understands the cultural nuances, grammar rules, and context of the source language, allowing for a more accurate translation.

Take this example:

  • Tengo calor. If you were to translate this common phrase word-for-word from Spanish to English, you would get the sentence: “I have hot.” In Spanish, the expressions for certain states of feeling or being are meant to describe what someone is feeling, rather than how. In other words, you would be saying “I have heat,” but even that sounds strange to native English speakers. So, we would simply translate “tengo calor” to: “I am hot.” While not word-for-word, this translation is more accurate. 

2. Cultural Nuances

Language and culture are inextricably linked, but overlooking cultural nuances leads to misunderstandings and translation errors. Certain customs, phrases, or words may be commonplace and even respectful in one language, but out of place in another. There are also some references in your text to cultural touchstones or events that are rooted specifically in one language and culture, but entirely unknown in another. 

Our translators at English to Spanish Raleigh are well-versed in the customs, idioms, social norms, and historical contexts of both the source and target languages, ensuring a more culturally sensitive and relevant translation. 

For instance:

  • Holidays. Someone whose first language is English may read a reference to Thanksgiving in a text and automatically understand all of the connotations that come with that: Family dinner, turkey, gratitude, etc. Someone who did not grow up in the States with these traditions may not have this immediate understanding, even if they do speak English fluently.  

3. Neglecting Register and Tone

Different languages have varying levels of formality, and failing to match the appropriate register and tone can result in translation errors that could even be offensive. 

Translators must pay close attention to the intended audience and purpose of the text to maintain the appropriate level of formality and tone.

Let’s take a look at an example: 

  • Informal vs. formal. In some Spanish-speaking countries, there are two forms of “you” that might be used: “Tú’,” the informal,  and “usted,” the formal. Each reflects the level of familiarity and respect in a conversation.

If a translator is working on a formal business document—one that uses “usted” in the original Spanish text—but fails to match the appropriate register and tone when translating this letter into English, it may lead to miscommunication. In English, there is no formal equivalent to “usted,” and using overly formal language might create a sense of distance that is not present in the original Spanish text. In this case, the translator’s attention to the intended audience and purpose of the text throughout the letter becomes crucial to maintaining the appropriate level of formality and tone.

4. Overlooking Idiomatic Expressions

Misusing idiomatic expressions is one of the most common translation errors we come across, as idiomatic expressions are so common in native languages and lead to confusion in translations. An idiom is a phrase unique to a certain language that is collectively understood to have a figurative meaning most likely not related to the words themselves. In English, phrases like “break a leg,” and “beat around the bush,” are two common examples. 

The problem with translating these is obvious: A direct, word-for-word translation will not convey the intended meaning of the phrase. Instead, translators should be aware of common idioms and find equivalent expressions in the target language to maintain the intended message.

Here’s just one way this might look:

  • Camarón que se duerme, se lo lleva la corriente. This idiom, when directly translated from Spanish, means: A shrimp that falls asleep, it’s taken away by the current. However, what the speaker normally means by this is: If you’re not paying attention, you will miss your opportunities. The translator in this case would need to find a way to say this without the potentially confusing aquatic reference.

5. Inconsistent Terminology

Consistency in terminology is crucial, especially in technical or specialized translations. Using inconsistent terms for the same concept creates confusion. Translators should establish a glossary and adhere to consistent terminology throughout the document to avoid translation errors.

For example: 

  • Translating a software manual. When writing a technical manual for a software application, the phrase “user interface” might come up a few times. If the translator uses different terms such as “user interface,” “user interface design,” and “interface for the user” interchangeably throughout the translation, that inconsistency may confuse the reader. To maintain clarity and precision, the translator should establish a glossary at the beginning of the project, clearly defining key technical terms and their corresponding translations. 

6. Misinterpreting Ambiguities

Ambiguities in the source language can be tricky to navigate, and even trickier when translating instruction manuals, legal documents, or other content where accuracy is vital.  Translators need to carefully analyze the context and consider possible interpretations before deciding on the most appropriate translation. Consulting with subject matter experts also helps clarify ambiguous terms and avoid translation errors. 

Take this instance: 

  • Contracts. Certain phrases in contracts need to be thoroughly defined in the text to be sure all parties know what they are agreeing to. The term “termination of the agreement,” for instance, could refer to either party ending the agreement or the agreement itself reaching its conclusion. Instead of making assumptions, the translator must carefully analyze the context in which the term is used, consulting both the original author of the text and any legal professionals who can provide insights into the specific nuances of the term. For instance, if the intended meaning is the mutual agreement to end the contract, the translator might opt for a translation like “mutual agreement to conclude the contract.” 

7. Ignoring Context

Context is key in understanding many texts, and it’s especially essential for accurate translation. Ignoring context leads to major misinterpretations and translation errors. Translators should consider the surrounding sentences or paragraphs to capture the intended meaning accurately.

Take this common example:

  • Estaba emocionado al recibir la carta. Without context, the word “carta” in Spanish could mean either a letter or a menu. So this sentence, without context, could either mean: “He was excited to receive the letter,” or “he was excited to receive the menu.” Adding context makes it much easier to understand where the subject is. You might have to say “Después de ordenar su comida, estaba emocionado al recibir la carta.” This makes the meaning much clearer, translating to: “After ordering his meal, he was excited to receive the menu.”

8. Machine Translation Reliance

While machine translation tools have improved significantly, they are not foolproof. Relying solely on automated translations can result in several translation errors, including many of the ones listed above, and awkward phrasing. Human expertise is essential for nuanced and context-dependent translations.

Let’s take a look at an example from Laura Esquivel’s beloved novel, “Like Water for Chocolate,” first written in Spanish and translated to English a few years later: 

  • Excerpt from original text of “Like Water for Chocolate”: “Todo lo contrario de sus hermanas, a quienes este mundo les atemorizaba y encontraban lleno de peligros incógnitos.”
    •  Actual English translation: “Her sisters were just the opposite: To them, Tita’s world seemed full of unknown dangers, and they were terrified of it.” 
    • Machine translation: “The complete opposite of her sisters, who were afraid of this world and found it full of unknown dangers.”

As you can see, the professional translation of the passage more accurately conveys the ideas of the original text, while the machine translation simply takes it word by word. 

9. Neglecting Proofreading

Neglecting the proofreading process is an important step in learning nuances in languages.

For instance, typos in the following documents compromise the document’s credibility—and yours by association. 

  • Contracts, medical documents, white papers: Typos in the following documents compromise the document’s credibility—and yours by association.

10. Lack of Communication with Clients

Finally, effective communication between translators and clients is crucial to avoiding translation errors. Translators should seek clarification on ambiguous terms, confirm the intended audience, and discuss any specific preferences or requirements with the client to ensure the final product meets expectations.

Avoid Translation Errors with Professional Translation Assistance 

Avoiding common translation errors requires a combination of linguistic expertise, cultural awareness, and attention to detail. By enlisting the help of professional translation services like English to Spanish Raleigh, you can ensure that the intended message is conveyed seamlessly across language barriers.

To learn more about our translation services or to request a free quote, call  919-629-0020 or fill out the contact form below.