The perils of translating words blindly without verifying them in context

Raymond Chen

My fancy new office phone has an option to change the language of its user interface, so naturally I chose Swedish. Once I did that, I saw some obvious translation errors.

  • The Edit command was called Bearb… instead of Redig…. Apparently, the Swedish translation was created by starting with the German version, and they missed a spot and left a word in German (Bearbeiten). This also illustrates the perils of not leaving enough room for expansion. The English word Edit is just four letters long, but the German word is ten letters long (and the Swedish one eight letters), and the longer German and Swedish words get truncated.
  • The label First name was translated as Första namn. Första namn does mean first name, but in a literal sense, as in the sentence “There are ten names. The first name is Wilson.” The correct translation is förnamn, which means given name (in contrast to efternamn, or family name). Similarly, the button Forward was translated as Vidare (opposite of backward) instead of Vidarekoppla (to forward a phone call).

The first example above is just sloppiness, but the second one illustrates how a simple LocalizeString(“some text”) algorithm doesn’t work. As Lance Fisher’s teacher put it, “Russian is not a translation of English.” You can’t just take words and phrases in one language and put them through a simple mapping table and expect the result to be accurate.

Back in the Windows 95 days, the German translation team needed some beta testers, and I volunteered. The most interesting translation bug I reported was one in which an English menu item Sort was translated as Art (which means class, kind) instead of Anordnen (which means to arrange). The one English word has two different meanings, and a blind dictionary translation won’t know which one is intended.


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