Grammatically Correct but Semantically Wrong. Why Learning Language Rules Is Not Enough.

Today let’s have a look at a translation that’s technically correct and grammatically flawless, yet that surely raised a few eyebrows when it was displayed:

“We take your bags and send them in all directions.”

It dates back quite a bit and only anecdotal evidence remains. It could have either come from Yokohama express in Japan or from an airline ticket counter in Denmark. Nevertheless, it surely came from somewhere.

The intended meaning was obviously “We’ll send your bags to any destination you fly to” or “anywhere you go” for brevity. What it sounds like is: “We’ll send your bags everywhere. Your shoes in London, your pants in Budapest, and your toothbrush in New York. Your books are going with you to Paris. Some of them at least.”

Technically, the translator didn’t do a bad job. To his credit, it is concise. If you translate text that’s going to be put up on a sign, in big letters, you can’t take too much space. And I bet the vast majority of people understood what was meant. I mean, it’s possible some people worried their bags would be dispatched all over the world, but unlikely. Still, it’s funny enough that people still talk about it to this day.

What’s hard in translation, is that some things seem to make sense. If you’re a Danish/Japanese speaker and read this sign in English, you might find it completely fine (I don’t know, I am neither). But any translator experienced enough in English would look at it and go: “we need to change that.”

Sometimes a translation is not obviously machine-translated and incorrect. Sometimes it comes very close to being right. Yet, it isn’t. If you are not sure you can tell the difference, then please, hire someone who does. Your almost-bilingual engineers and developers have better ways to spend their time. Your company’s image and credibility depend on it.

Funny sign saying "your visit is over", which seems like an incorrect translation from Chinese.

By making fun of other people’s translations, we often invite scrutiny into our own work. If others fail, then surely, we could fail too. This short story will serve as a good reminder for us to never make assumptions and keep double-checking our work. Our clients deserve quality.

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