Businesses spend unnecessary time trying to correct translations

Do you have the experience when you have to spend so much time to correct translations and rewrite them, that you might as well have translated it yourself? It is so, you are not alone.

Many companies have the same experience – some of the translations sent from abroad are not so well translated and contains notable failures. Here is the explanation of why!

unnecessary time trying to correct Chinese translations


Let’s say your company import products and will receive marketing materials that have been translated by manufacturer abroad – where it is supposed to review, correct, approve and use the material.

Or you will receive the same from a head office or global headquarters. Or you will receive manuals for installation, operation, maintenance and repair.


Large multinational companies like Apple, Samsung, LG, Toyota, BMW and Ford have the whole world as its market. Promotional materials and documentation for the products are, however, not made in each country; it is centralized. This centralization makes sense, both for economic reasons and to maintain control over the branding and presentation. If these companies had made all the commercials and websites for each country locally, the cost would have been formidable, and it would have been difficult to ensure the quality standard of all such websites.

These materials are first globalized, which means that they are authored with the intent to be the source text for the translated versions in each market – usually in English because this is far more practical to translate from than some small languages, such as Finnish. (There are not so many Chinese translators who can translate Finnish.)


Then, the marketing material and documentation are translated into a number of languages and adapted to local conditions – a process known as localization. And there is a large volume of texts. The thick IKEA catalog is translated for example into 34 languages this year and has a larger circulation than the Bible.

The most common way to organize localization is to allocate all translation tasks to one large translation agency. Because of the amount of texts and number of languages, they can contract with the agency at a much more favorable price, and the company will not have to deal with more than one supplier. The translation company, in turn, turns around and negotiate the price down considerably in a similar way to its suppliers, based on the large volumes and that the missions are long term.

So far so good. This is a win-win situation for the company, the translation service and the freelance translators. And the agency with the most competitive price gets the contract. But why must the translations be so bad merely because of this?

This is because some conditions that are peculiar to the translation industry:

1. It is done from home

The vast majority of translators are freelancers. And most of the larger translation agencies consist only of an administration, sales, project managers, coordinators and specialists in logistics systems tailored for translation. They have neither translators or reviewers on the payroll, to reduce the risk of losses in off-peak hours and to release payroll and social security costs. The actual translation work is outsourced to freelancers – or to other, smaller agencies who in turn put it out to freelancers.

2. Poor communication

There is almost never a direct contact between a translator and his/her customer, not to mention between the translator and the client’s office in the country where the translation will be used. The language service provider would naturally have full control over the communication, and the translators are not allowed to make contact themselves. There is therefore no translators call you and ask for things.

3. Lack of context

The texts a freelance translator receives from an agency, are detached from the illustrations, layout and context. It is converted to table view of the agency, with one sentence in each table row. Often, the layout attached in a separate file, but sometimes it is not there; typically when large web solutions are being translated. The translator can see, just a long list of orphaned text strings. Despite the support material, linguistic policies and glossaries, the translator is missing something essential: a clear sense of what we are talking about! For example, the English word coat be both coat, jacket and smock in Chinese. When there is no illustration or context, the choice between the options needs guesswork.

English to Norwegian translation

4. Low price = high quality? No, not quite

Unfortunately there is a certain connection between what you pay and what you get, here as in other industries. What large  agencies pay their freelancers can be quite small (remember volume discount they have already given to the client), and the very best translators may not quest for so little. Now this should not be understood to mean that those who undertake these missions are bad translators, but they have to keep a high pace to earn enough because they get paid per word. With a low word price is not tempting to spend time digging and ask for details. Coat, jacket, coat, samma, when now the customer is so short-sighted that he did not attach a photo. Clothes are clothes. Cheese is cheese.


This is what a translation company should  do:

  1. Utilizing talented translators who are thinking, that is, who understand the source text and what it is used for, and who notice that they do not understand when they do not understand, and not just fade out.
  2. Always give translators access to context and illustrations.
  3. Ensuring that the translator’s questions about the source text and how the text should be used will be answered with all possible priority.
  4. Ensure that all translations are proofread by a person other than the translator, and that this also is a talented person.

If the current agency can not be moved to do so, or do not have the budget to use other translators as well as make a sideman proof, be quick to use another agency (we do not say which!) who practices point 1-4. Even if you had to pay the second agency a great deal more, the truth is that this will pay off big for your company, because you do not have to do the work over again afterward, and your hours cost everything!