A case of disgraceful incompetence

An interesting project that should have inspired admiration and pride was launched in Brazil in March 2012. The Brazilian Federal Supreme Court published an International Portal with a “trilingual glossary.” According to the portal, the project is designed for the international reader and seeks to present the Brazilian legal system to the international jurist community in a simplified way.

Great initiative, isn’t it? Well, I can tell you the Brazilian translator community isn’t at all happy about it. Unfortunately this online tool was launched despite its shamefully poor English and Spanish translation and terminology work. The mistakes are numerous and hideous, making the glossary not only practically useless, but also potentially dangerous.

The portal includes a brief description of how the glossary was prepared: “contou com a colaboração de vários servidores e estagiários poliglotas,” i.e., polyglot employees and interns have collaborated on the glossary. How nice of them!

Fellow translators have been contacting the Supreme Court and trying to make the institution realize the glossary cannot be kept online in its current state. They have also urged that this sort of task should be performed by professionals who have expertise in translation and terminology, i.e., translators and terminologists, not polyglot employees and interns. A standard response has been sent to them all (“thank you… your input will be used in our ongoing review of the glossary… yadda yadda yadda”), but no actual correction has been done so far.

Since we cannot predict how long the glossary will be kept as-is, I’ve saved a couple of screenshots to document the case (click to enlarge):


There are countless horrendous mistakes (and not limited to translation), but my goal is not to write a review of the actual content. My intent is to highlight some of the possible causes and consequences of this project gone awry.

Why are these mistakes so serious? Portals and websites like this one, created and endorsed by a supposedly respectable government body, a high authority in the field, are often regarded by translators, students, and the whole international community as trustworthy references. They should be reliable sources of terminology and information in general. They must, therefore, have top quality material, carefully prepared by a team of highly qualified translators and terminologists and, hopefully, validated by experienced professionals in the legal field; and definitely not done by polyglot employees and interns. I don’t even want to imagine the gaffes, mistranslations, miscommunications, lawsuits—to say the least—that may result from this amateur attempt…

The least they could do now is to (1) take down the whole glossary, (2) post a public apology on the website recognizing the serious flaws, and (3) have the whole job redone by translation and terminology professionals who specialize in the legal field.

Why did I decide to bring this case to my readers’ attention, after all? It’s a common myth that being bilingual or polyglot is enough for anyone to perform a translation task successfully. The reality is far, far different. I know a huge number of people who are great at speaking their second or third language, but aren’t able to translate a line without making it sound rough, awkward, or too literal. Note that I’m not even referring to highly specialized terminology, which requires a whole set of different skills. Knowing how to carry out proper terminology research is a must, but not something everyone can do. Even within the translation community, you’ll often find a professional who specializes in, say, medical translation, and won’t take on even the shortest text on oil & gas.

I believe a great many failures in translation projects often result from the translation buyers’ lack of information about our field and its difficulties. The main goal in this blog is to make a difference by raising awareness on a series of issues that are little recognized by non-translators or even unknown to many of them. I prefer to think the Supreme Court was just naïve when setting up this project. Let’s hope the people in charge of this glossary learn from their mistakes and make amends. Of course hiring translation and terminology experts will cost a lot more than simply using employees and interns. And having the work redone will probably go over budget. But shouldn’t a proper feasibility study have been carried out in the first place?

To wrap up, check out the collage of images below, which has become popular on many social media websites. I think no further explanations are necessary.

Resources and planning

There’s no doubt that the most interested party in the success of a translation should be the client. However, there are a number of ways in which you might fail to help improve the translation process for lack of information about it. Or, even worse, you might interfere negatively in the outcome.

With this in mind, I’ve listed some measures that ideally should be taken by whoever is involved in a translation project, and not only by those specifically assigned as project managers. I emphasized “ideally” because I understand that real-life situations sometimes get out of hand. Let’s just say the following recommendations are the ultimate best-case scenario, in which everybody wins.

There are still many other tips to come, but I hope the few suggestions below are a good starting point.

  • Plan ahead

I cannot emphasize enough the importance of planning ahead and giving translators the time they need to achieve excellence. If you’ve been working with the same translator for a while, you should have an idea of how much time s/he needs to accomplish a given task. Nevertheless, productivity varies from person to person, from text to text, even from day to day. Also, keep in mind that various “obstacles” might get in your translator’s way at any given time: s/he might be booked for another project and juggling with two or more texts, instead of offering you full-time dedication; the content of your text might differ from what s/he is used to, making the translation take longer; s/he might be busy with personal issues or even planning to go on vacation… and so on and so forth.

What I recommend is talking to your translator about upcoming projects as soon as you know about them. If your company deals with routine translation projects, for instance, there’s no reason for not giving timely notices. Of course you can’t effectively book someone until you know more details such as dates, length of the text, contents, etc. An organized translator will be grateful to know something’s around the corner, and will possibly bear it in mind when working on his/her own schedule.

On your end, make sure everyone involved in the production of the original text observes the time frame. The deadlines should consider the translator’s work and a final reading of the translated text by your team. Be careful, though: having your staff “edit” the translation is a double-edged sword and should be done very carefully and responsibly (I’ll come back to this issue in a future post).

Tight turn-around times are usually accompanied by rush fees, and these are expenses you want to avoid. On top of that, keep in mind that hectic schedules might also affect the quality of the final text—this topic will be discussed in more detail soon.

  • Provide reference materials

When talking about ways to avoid mistakes in technical texts, Chris Durban suggests that you “use in-house subject-matter specialists to provide vocabulary and background materials up front.” This advice certainly applies to all types of texts and media. It’s important to make available to translators any sort of material that is somehow related to the text to be translated.

If you have relevant bilingual documents such as previously translated content, don’t even hesitate! Other useful materials include glossaries (monolingual or bilingual), lists of preferred terms, style sheets, lists of acronyms and their meanings written out, etc. Experienced translators are usually trained to spot pertinent terms, expressions, phrases, and other elements of style that are present even in monolingual texts. So go ahead and send out that 2002 report in English, even though you cannot find its Spanish translation. Likewise, any type of relevant text in the target language (i.e. language into which a text is translated) will be highly appreciated.

These supporting materials will help maintain consistency among your company’s texts and assist your translator in providing high-quality services. They might even shorten the turn-around time.

As you can see, we all benefit from these measures. You increase your chances of getting an impeccable final text, and translators appreciate this support and consideration that help them meet their client’s needs faster and more efficiently.