Translation win or translation bin?

It’s the paradox of our industry: you pay for a translation because you don’t speak the language – so how do you know it’s any good? It means there’s a huge amount of trust put in the relationship between translator and client. And when that trust is broken, the results can be catastrophic.

In 2009, HSBC were forced to launch a multimillion pound rebranding project after its tagline “Assume nothing” was translated to “Do nothing” in several countries.

It’s hard not to see the comedy in other unintentional “rebrands” by translators. The “Jolly Green Giant” of frozen or canned vegetable fame became the “Intimidating Green Monster” in Arabic. The American Dairy Association’s famous “Got Milk” strapline, unwittingly asked its Mexican audience if they were lactating, whilst KFC’s “finger-lickin’ good” became the rather sinister: “We’ll eat your fingers off” in China.

Yes, there’s a grisly fascination in reading about translation fails but in the real world it’s no laughing matter. So how can you be certain of a good quality conversion?

As with any other project, things can always go wrong, but there are definitely a few pointers we can share to make sure any miscommunication less likely.


Just as you would when choosing any new supplier, spend time checking out the reputation of your Language Service Provider. It’s always worth looking for objective reviews online or searching out testimonials rather than focusing only on their website. Client portfolio is another good indicator of the calibre of people who trust in their work.


Not all translators are equal, all of the time. If your text is technical, legal or medical, for instance, you will be able to find specialist translators who are expert in this sort of translation. If there is any level of technicality or sector-specific terminology it’s always worth finding a specialist.

At the same time, there are some other questions worth checking out, before you engage a translator – such as:

  • Are they a native speaker?
  • Are they in-country? (if they’ve lived in the UK for a significant length of time, they won’t have their finger on the pulse of language in their home country in the same way a resident does)
  • How much experience do they have?
  • Are they professional/full time translators, and do they have relevant language qualifications?
  • Is their office in your time zone? How easy will it be to work together?

In terms of expertise, both language and subject matter knowledge is important.

Cultural sensitivity

Sometimes a straightforward like-for-like translation isn’t appropriate for your audience. Speak to agencies or translators who you are considering working with about the use of “localisation” in their projects. Put simply, localisation is about understanding the nuances of language and how to match it appropriately to the cultural sensitivities of the region.


Finally, look for a company which has a tried and tested quality assurance process for translation work. You need to know they are robust in their efforts to maintain standards and provide an excellent service. The post-translation review is a key indicator they’re serious about their work.

This is when a translation is reviewed by the agency after the translator has completed their work. Agencies should have a number of QA tools which help them to check standards. Sometimes clients can request additional reviews so the piece might be sent to another linguist for extra checks.


Following these four steps will help you do your due diligence before booking a translation, and should ensure the result is as accurate as it can be. Let’s be honest: in a day and age where anyone can plug a text into Google Translate and receive an instant result, language companies know they must demonstrate how they can add value.

Professional translations are on a whole different level – ask your agency to prove it, and don’t be afraid to hold them to the high standards our industry prides itself on. 

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