Translation errors and culture

The evolution of the internet, and in particular the growth of social media, has done wonders to reduce the vastness of our planet and bring people around the world closer together. Our communication pings almost instantaneously around the world and auto-translation software is making the content of the internet accessible like never before. Yet there’s still a long way to go and companies from small to large are finding they are not immune from making embarrassing translation mistakes.

The Airports Authority of India’s sign warning English-speaking customers that “eating carpet strictly prohibited” vies with American Airlines’ “fly naked” slogan in South America for its entertainment value (the former was supposed to deter airport users from eating in the carpeted areas of the airport, while the latter was a non-localized translation designed to promote the attractive leather seats of first class).

While phrase-based statistical machine translation is gradually being phased out in favor of artificial neural networks, machine translation is still very much a fledgling industry in terms of its ability to produce flawless, natural sounding translations. Despite billions of dollars being thrown at the issue, the complexities of language still respond best to the human translation approach when it comes to tackling idioms, metaphors and hidden meanings.

Cultural matters also come into play. In late May, the Japanese gaming company Nintendo sparked protests in Hong Kong, with demonstrators taking to the streets in front of the Japanese consulate. Protesters said that Nintendo was ignoring Hong Kong’s culture. The controversy centered around the Pokemon character Pikachu, which had previously been translated to Bei-kaa-chiu for Cantonese speaking audiences and Pi-ka-qiu for Mandarin speakers. The latest translation, however, ditched the Cantonese version in favor of using Pi-ka-qiu as the character’s only official Chinese name (which in pronounced as Pei-ka-yau in Cantonese).

Clearly Nintendo had not anticipated the depth of feeling that the change would ignite. It has been translating Pokemon games and associated products and services since the series’ original release in 1995, for both Cantonese-speaking and Mandarin-speaking audiences, as well as a whole host of other languages for players around the globe, usually without issue. However, the new decision to ditch the Bei-kaa-chiu character name hit a raw nerve with many of those in Hong Kong who feel that Cantonese, which has been the de facto official language there for decades, is gradually being replaced with Mandarin due to shifting migration patterns.

Such cultural sensitivities can be of huge importance to those living in countries undergoing rapid change and companies need to be aware of them when presenting their products to local audiences. In the case of Nintendo, some Pokemon fans in Hong Kong felt that they were being passed over in favor of Nintendo’s largest overseas market, China, despite years of loyalty to the company and its games.

Skype is another giant that hit the headlines for the wrong reasons when its exciting new real-time voice-to-voice translation, which was rolled out in seven languages in January 2016, was found to be replacing simple greetings with obscenities. Photographer Tom Carter, who was actually shooting an advert for Skype in China at the time, found that his phrase, “It’s nice to talk to you” was reproduced as a string of highly offensive expletives in Mandarin.

So how can translation mistakes at this level still take place, with so much technology at our fingertips? The answer is twofold. The first part is that our technological advancement hasn’t yet conquered language sufficiently to allow flawless translation that takes account of meaning and context as well as actual word and phrase translation. Exciting things are happening in the industry and huge companies like Facebook and Google are regularly announcing how far their translation mechanisms have come, but reliably accurate machine translation is still some way off.

The other factor that comes into play is localization. Even the most sophisticated machine cannot take account of local customs, traditions and events when it comes to translation. Global events and migration patterns are stirring up political tensions around the world and language can be a powerful factor when it comes to both reducing and heightening those tensions. Computers fail to take account of such shifts of sentiment, as indeed do many humans (Nintendo’s “standardization” of Pikachu being the perfect example). As our world continues to change around us, the scope for translation mistakes will always exist. It’s part of what makes language — and translation — such a fascinating area of study.

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Louise Taylor manages content for the Tomedes Translators blog. She has worked in the language and translation industry for many years.

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