International Communications Group Inc
A Translation Service Company


Avoiding Costly Mistakes

Our views on quality translations are reflected in a section of the book

Managing Diversity, by Lee Gardenswartz, Ph.D., and Anita Rowe, Ph.D.,

for which Monica Moreno was interviewed.


Avoiding the common pitfalls in translation


In communicating in a multilingual environment, you may find the need to put information in writing in other languages.  Monica Moreno, intercultural communications expert and translator, explains that organizations may unknowingly subvert their goals by not making use of professional translators.  She sees the mistakes and the problems caused when translations are not professionally done, such as the case of the poorly translated employee benefit program that led to workers’ disgruntlement when they didn’t get the “prize” (premio) they were mistakenly promised.  To make her point, Monica asks executives if they would be comfortable having the receptionist make a presentation on a complex company policy or program.  She then explains that this is often what they do when they assign a translation to any employee who happens to speak a second language.  What often results are the most common translation pitfalls:


  • Poorly written translations due to incorrect grammar and misspelling, which insult readers.

  • Inadequate translations due to lack of understanding on the part of the translator.

  • Inaccurate translations due to lack of vocabulary and understanding on the part of the translator.

  • Inappropriate translations due to the translator’s inability to write to the level of the reader.


Monica, a native of Argentina, gives the following suggestions to assure accurate and appropriate translations that achieve the organization’s objectives:


1.            The translator should be a native speaker of the language he/she is writing.  While Monica is fluent in English, Italian and French, she writes only the Spanish translations because Spanish is her native language.  A native speaker generally has the most complete grasp of a language.


2.            A translation should be edited by a native speaker from a different country than the original translator’s.  This is specifically important in the Spanish-speaking world, where regional and national differences in vocabulary and idiomatic expressions can cause confusion.


3.            Use a professional translator.  While interpreters in the United States are certified, there is no official U.S. certification for translators as there is in many other countries.  A professional understands the nuances of communication and has the ability to grasp different levels of content from simple to complex.  Also, information may be more credible coming from an objective outsider who has no vested interest in the communication nor previous relationship with staff.  He/she is also able to adjust the translation to suit the target group.  Checking references and having a native speaker read a sample might be ways to verify the translator’s skill.


4.            Augment the translated message with question/answer sessions in the language of staff.  An employee newsletter is generally understandable to all who can read; however, if the document being translated has to do with policies, procedures, or programs, there is a need for employees to discuss implications, get clarification, and verify understanding.  This can best be done in an explanation session held in the employees’ native language.


5.            Think ahead, and budget for translation services.  To have a document written by an executive vice president and checked by the legal department and then have it translated by a bilingual employee with a sixth-grade education, is asking for trouble.  Include the cost of translation in the budget when planning for any program that needs to be communicated to non-English-speaking employees.


6.            If you use internal bilingual staff to translate, verify the translation.  Having the document translated back into English by another bilingual employee is a way to check for accuracy.


7.            Provide the option of translation in a nondiscriminatory way.  If you ask employees if they want a translation of a document or a session in their native language, workers are apt to say no.  Most don’t want to be a burden to the organization nor expose their lack of English skills, so they would be reluctant to respond with a yes.  It is more helpful to make the option available in a matter-of-fact way, by providing two stacks of documents, one in each language, or two discussion groups, Spanish in room A and English in room B.