At the beginning of every training class, I, as the instructor, make it a point to explain to the linguists the gravity of mistranslation, and the importance of taking the task at hand very seriously. I tell them without hesitation, that any translation mistake can be serious enough to sever relations between two friendly countries, or even spark a conflict between them. My years of experience as a senior Arabic linguist have exposed me to many examples of such mistakes. While some of them can be humorous and benign, others can be disastrous.
Some translation companies make the mistake of assuming that translators do not have to be experts in the subject matter they are translating, and assign jobs based on availability and cost instead of background experience. They do not realize that, unless a translator is a professional in the appropriate field (medical, legal, political, etc.), this can be an assumption that the company might live to regret. Another bad assumption some clients and translation companies make is that any native linguist can understand all material written in his/her native language. Such an assumption is especially dangerous when it comes to the Arabic language, because spoken Arabic varies greatly in various parts of the Middle East and from the written Arabic, known as Classical Arabic. It is not that these companies do not assess their linguists and test their abilities.
The issue is that they do not always appreciate the importance of having a native of a specific language, who knows excellent English and, at the same time has good background knowledge of the material. While it is not feasible to have translators from every background, it is possible to produce an accurate translation job. This can be achieved by ensuring that the finished product is proofread and edited by a native linguist/editor. In other words, the translation company must ensure that the resulting product is checked by a native proofreader to spot mistakes, and to verify accuracy of and faithfulness to the source text. This, I believe, is the stage that translation companies have been neglecting, and need to give extra attention to.
Disastrous Outcome of Inaccurate Translation
In my career, I saw hundreds of disastrous mistakes, resulting from poor reading abilities, limited background knowledge, carelessness or inability to interpret the meaning from one language into another. Take this as an example: A linguist translated an item from an Arabic blog in which the author was describing a dream he had. In the dream, the author saw himself attending a lecture by one of his favorite professors, who was calling for the formation of a secret movement to wage war against a friendly nation, as "commanded by God." Though the author made it clear that this was only a dream, the translator overlooked this fact - more likely because he did not understand the source text, or did not take the time to read the article carefully - and wrote the following headline for his translated piece: "Country X Has Secret Plans to Wage a Holy War against Country Y." Considering that these two countries were on the verge of an escalated conflict, this piece could have worsened the relations between the two countries, to say the least. Fortunately, the mistake was caught before the item was published.
Translation is anything but easy. It requires a certain degree of general knowledge in world events, leaders, countries and much more. It also calls for excellent linguistic knowledge in both source and target languages. A linguist, who lacks one of these basic elements, is a risk to the company, to the client and to himself.
Sometimes, a mistranslation might not be this serious, but it can definitely be embarrassing.
Take this example:
A part of a statement issued by an insurgent group included a sentence that read as follows: "The jihadists left to Ard al-Ribat [the frontiers or the outpost], refusing but to knock at Heaven's Gates with their skulls." [Language usually used by Muslim warriors, talking about their determination to fight until they die as martyrs].
The linguist, who was assigned this job, misunderstood more than one word in the original text and mistranslated it as follows: "So, set forth to the land of ties and victory and answer [the call] for they will strike their skulls against the gates of insanity.' The linguist did not only display poor knowledge of Classical Arabic, which he tried to cover up by adding words that were not in the original text, but also showed lack of common sense and commitment to the product, by writing a meaningless sentence and not attempting to make sense of it.
In case one wonders how the mistakes in the above example were made, here is what happened. The translator interpreted the word "jinan" as "madness or insanity," as used in his country, Egypt, whereas in Classical Arabic and in light of the context, it meant "paradise" or "heaven." He also did not understand the meanings of Ard al-Ribat, and the expression "Heaven's Gates" due to his limited knowledge of Islamic expressions and Classical Arabic. In other words, the above mistake resulted from failure on the part of the linguist to understand the original and interpret it into the target language. An amateur translator may make mistakes at this stage either from a failure to understand the thinking process of the author of the source item or from a lack of knowledge in the subject matter.
Addressing the Problem of Mistranslation:
Unless this problem is addressed at every level of the translation process, a company is taking the chance of publishing a poorly translated piece. It is very difficult for a recruitment manager or a client to determine the abilities of a linguist just by giving an assessment test. Many linguists take the time and exert the effort to produce a good translation piece when trying to get a job, but they fail to display the same commitment after being hired. This suggests that extra care must be given to hiring linguists. A general knowledge test should be part of the assessment in at least the fields of the business in which the linguist will be working. A good, qualified linguist is likely to produce an accurate translation. However, my experience has proven to me over and again that even the best linguist can make mistakes. This is where the vernacular editor comes in [a vernacular editor is an editor who has a good command of both source and target languages]. A capable editor should also have an inquisitive mind, like a qualified linguist, that makes him constantly search for the best word that gives the most accurate meaning. Otherwise, a final product can be riddled with embarrassing mistakes.
Translation mistakes occur every day, but their seriousness should not be underestimated. Every linguist and project manager must aim at producing accurate translations in order to communicate the translated material faithfully and correctly. Sometimes, when my frustration with poor translation reaches a boiling point, I comfort myself by promising to turn these mistakes into a humorous book when I retire. In the meantime, I intend to include these mistakes in my training books to aid future linguists in their pursuit to become accurate translators.
Chief Translator/Business Owner