Don’t Shoot the Translator!

Why translation can only be as good as your original content. (Which in some cases is pretty bad.)

“Garbage in, garbage out,” they say. And it certainly holds true for translations. I’ve seen some pretty flowery marketing text recently that customers have asked us to translate – and of course we do our best. But unfortunately, our best may not be good enough for their audience. Some call it the “Obscurity Trap.”

Many talented marketing professionals tasked with writing English text about what their company does, for websites, product literature, manuals, press releases and such, have been seduced by a false-god of good writing. These writers believe that in order to have text that sounds great, they have to write content that sounds just like marketing material we’ve all read before, and have been put to sleep by. You know the kind; writing that tries to sound intelligent, never mind that it doesn’t really mean anything to anyone. Take this quote from Enron Corporation’s 2001 Annual Report, for example:

“Enron’s success in 2000 was a success by any measure, as we continued to out-distance the competition, and solidify our leadership in every major business. We have robust networks of strategic assets that we own, or have contractual access to, which gives us greater flexibility and speed to reliably deliver widespread logistical solutions…We have metamorphasized from asset-based pipeline and power generating company to a marketing and logistics company whose biggest assets are its well-established business approach and its innovative people.”

Don’t Shoot the Translator!


The fact that this company was subsequently found out to be a fraud is not as shocking to me as the fact that this type of vague writing is still an epidemic even today, spreading throughout every industry, from Energy to Manufacturing to Life Sciences to Financial Services.

Lingo, wordiness and evasiveness are rampant in today’s business-speak and together, create “The Obscurity Trap,” as Brian Fugure, Chelsea Hardaway, & Jon Warshowsky, call it in their book why business people speak like idiots. In this refreshing take on business communications, the authors illustrate several reasons why even good writers fall into this bad trap. How they get a false sense of security by writing something that sounds intelligent, sounds like it has been written before, sounds like something no one has ever complained about, but is complete bull%%EDITORCONTENT%%amp;#@. How can they believe that they will never get fired for writing something that sounds so completely benign and incomprehensible?

When it comes to language translation, where the art is to interpret the message and translate that message as accurately as possible in another language, this type of writing will only get more obfuscated. Or worse; the obscurity trap will propagate in every market that you are spending tons of money on trying to do business with, and hamper your ability to communicate your value to your audience there.

There are many reasons why English content authors for major companies fall into this obscurity trap. In this case, as it is often with many so called “press releases” that the goal was to impress rather than inform the reader.

So my advice to our clients is this:

Write clear, simple, concise text, so that when it comes to translation, you stand the best chance of being understood by your in-market audience.