The Difference Between Translation Errors and Preferential Changes

A handwritten translated document with translation errors markedUnlike mathematics or chemistry, translation is not an exact science. One might say that it is much more of an “art” than a “science.” When it comes to evaluating the quality of a translation, there is a great deal of subjectivity involved which can create frustration for both clients and translation companies. Clients may feel that they received a sub-par translation, whereas the translation company may see things quite differently. The cause for much of this confusion comes down to understanding the difference between translation errors and preferential changes.

Defining “Translation Errors” and “Preferential Changes”

A “translation error” typically refers to objectively quantifiable issues such as spelling mistakes, incorrect grammar, poor word choice, a mistranslated term, and missing or added content, to name a few of the more common problems. For example, translating “car” as camión (truck) in Spanish is clearly incorrect and leaves little room for interpretation.

However, a “preferential change” refers to preferences in word choice or style from one person (or translator) to another. Using the same simple example as above, translating “car” as either auto, carro, or coche. Each of these terms means “car” in Spanish, and all are equally correct. If a client wants to change auto to carro in their translation, that would be categorized as a preferential change, not a translation error.

Transposing numbers or dates incorrectly, switching the subject and object, or using the wrong verb tense (e.g., preterit versus past imperfect) would all be examples of other indisputable translation errors.

The Gray (or “Grey”) Area

Unfortunately, for clients and translation reviewers alike, assessing the difference between translation errors and preferential changes is not always so black and white. For example, when translating a German automotive patent into English for an American client, one translator may render the term Getriebe as “gearbox.” While “gearbox” would be an accurate translation of the original German term, “transmission” is more widely used in the United States. Therefore, while “gearbox” isn’t technically incorrect, the translator did not take the target audience into account in their translation.

Another issue that comes up frequently is the question of excessively “literal” translations or “word-for-word” translations (as opposed to more “idiomatic” translations). While a translation should seldom be a literal “word-for-word” rendering of the source language into the target language, since grammar, sentence structure, etc. vary quite profoundly from language to language, translations that are more “literal” in nature may be necessary.

Whether a translation should be more literal or more idiomatic is something that should be discussed by the translation company and client beforehand. The target audience and intent of the document play an important role in determining how to complete the translation. It is also important to remember that translators are rightfully hesitant to diverge too significantly from the source material. In those cases, localization or transcreation may be more appropriate solutions than translation.

Furthermore, a translation that may be more “literal” than a client’s internal reviewer may like does not necessarily mean that the translation is incorrect. Depending on the context and conditions, it could be considered as a stylistic preference. However, certain types of excessively literal translations could also be viewed as “incorrect,” depending on how it is used and the translator’s justification.

The Bottom Line

To avoid the need for extensive preferential changes in translations, which can consume a lot of time both for clients and their translation providers, is to make sure that your translation provider is given all of the necessary information and context up-front to provide you with the best possible translation. For example, glossaries and style guides can go a long way to avoiding these types of issues.

At Affordable Language Services, we have a strict translation quality control process that involves translation, editing, and a quality check, all complete by separate linguists. We also encourage our clients to provide glossaries, style guides, and translation memory databases so that we can minimize the number of preferential changes and avoid any translation errors.