4 web copy translation myths

… and how to spot a good translator

Gabriela Freund | © punkt & komma
Gabriela Freund
Content editor EN
If you don’t know anything about translating, you might think: “How hard can it be?”. However, if you have ever tried to translate a text yourself, you know: “It’s not all that easy!” There are lots of translation myths. Find out which of them are true, why it’s a good idea to invest in a professional web copy translation and how to spot a good translator!
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Myth No. 1

Google Translate will do

Using Google Translate for your translation is the No. 1 mistake. A machine is (as of yet) unable to fully replace a human being – at least as far as translations are concerned. Often, there is no direct equivalent for a word in another language. That’s where a translator comes into play, trying to find an alternative way to say it.

Alternatively, there often countless possibilities to translate one single word. Now it’s about finding the one that best fits your context and the style of your text. What a machine lacks are feel for language and sociocultural background knowledge. 

Here’s a little example: What happens with the German phrase “sage und schreibe 1.000 Möglichkeiten” when you put it into Google Translate? You’ve guessed it: Google comes up with “say and write” for “sage und schreibe”. Funny – and awfully wrong. And that’s by far not the only example, as proven by the countless blog entries and YouTube videos on Google Translation fails …
Myth No. 2

My school English is enough

No, it’s not. Your school English might be enough to get you through your next holiday and chat to a few locals, but not for a high-quality translation.

Translation is the pinnacle of language command! Even people who are fluent in a language, who have studied it at university or spent some time abroad, frequently have difficulties when it comes to translating texts.

That’s because translating requires thought processes that are not ordinarily used in daily life and take a lot of practice. Just imagine the following situation:

Situation No 1: Take someone who has a rather mediocre command of the target language. At this point, a person from, say, Austria or Germany will still think in German – even when he speaks English. This means that he will inadvertently construct German sentences in his head and translate them to English before saying them out loud.

The result is a kind of “German-tinted English” – so to speak, a 1:1 translation from German. For English native speakers, this often sounds strange or simply wrong. Just remember our “say and write” example!
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Another frequent source of language mistakes are the so-called “false friends”. The term refers to words that sound similar in two different languages (and might even share the same origin), but have completely different meanings. Just think of the German word “Gift”, which translates to “poison” or “venom”, as opposed to the English word “gift”, which means “present”! Another example is the English word “sensible”, which has nothing to do with the German term “sensibel” (“sensitive”) but rather means “reasonable”, “practical”.

It’s easy to see how false friends can lead to misunderstandings. It’s important to avoid these kinds of misunderstandings, especially in the business world, where they can have quite embarrassing or even costly effects. 

For an above-average and natural command of English, the language more or less has to have entered your bloodstream, but …

Situation No. 2: Take someone who speaks the language so well that he or she constructs their sentences in his head in English before saying them. That’s quite an achievement – but doesn’t get them closer to the process of translating either. After all, they will still have problems finding the English translation for certain German words or phrases.

Translation is the pinnacle of language command because you constantly need to switch between languages and sentence structures, between mindsets and sociocultural aspects. The tricky part is to juggle all of them at the same time!
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Myth No. 3

Native speakers are better translators

Not necessarily. Granted, a native speaker has excellent command of his native language – but not necessarily of his second language. This means that an English native speaker is faced with the same problems as a German native speaker. He might know what sounds good in English, but that doesn’t mean he’s sure to grasp all the subtext of the German source text! 

Another example: What do you think, how could an English native speaker translate the German sentence “Wir sind schließlich die Besten auf diesem Gebiet“? Maybe you‘ve guessed it: “Last but not least, we’re the best …“, which rather corresponds to “Zu guter Letzt sind wir die Besten …“. That’s not completely wrong in English, but still the actual meaning of the word “schließlich” (“after all”) has been lost. 
Myth No. 4

A translation doesn’t have to be a literary masterpiece

Partly true. However, keep in mind that there’s quite a lot of boxes that a successful translation – especially of web copy – has to tick! After all, your translated text has to have the same quality as the original web copy. Ideally, your reader doesn’t even notice that he’s reading a translated text but instead enjoys the same reading experience as the reader of the original text.

A translated text has to have the same kind of impact as the source text. And a “correct” translation doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s a “beautiful” one. Any text has to be captivating and make you want to read more. That’s why readability, well-researched information and (where applicable) a bit of humour are also important in a translated text! 

Tip: The same criteria apply to “standard” and translated web copy: Who are your personas? What about text length? How long are your sentences, your headlines and meta tags? Where do your keywords fit in? Is the text optimised for the web? You might want to check up on the basic requirements in our Content Marketing Workbook!

What does it take to achieve a good translation?

First things first: A good translator doesn’t translate the individual words of a text – he translates its meaning, its look and feel.

So how do you spot a good translator? Well, a really good translator …
  • … knows the ins and outs of the source language and is familiar with its sociocultural context.
  • … you guessed it: knows the ins and outs of the target language and is familiar with its sociocultural context (otherwise you’re very likely to put your foot in it!). 
  • … grasps the meaning of the source text. Nobody expects you to have expert knowledge on every topic out there – but what you don’t know, you can look up! Research is often time-consuming – but it pays off!
  • … knows about different text types and formats and structures his translations accordingly.
  • loves writing and has a passion for language. It’s not just the author, but also the translator who has to enjoy thinking about the best way to phrase something. That’s why idioms, figures of speech, humour, puns and a sure instinct for words are just as much part of a translator’s daily business as of an author’s.
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You have all of the abovementioned skills? Or know someone who does? That’s great – there’s nothing much that can go wrong now! However, if you don’t know anyone with these skills, you might want to consider investing in a professional translation. After all, bad translations not only make you look amateurish, they will also make your potential customers leave your site in no time at all. And nobody wants that – least of all Google!

Conclusion: A good web copy translation has to be fun – for the translator as well as for the reader!

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