James Halstead and Marcin Durlak examine the need for high quality legal translation

We’ve heard many stories of mistranslated marketing slogans entering foreign markets. Most notably, California’s milk marketing board’s strapline Got Milk? supposedly became Are you lactating? when advertised in Spanish, and the Come Alive! You’re in the Pepsi generation tagline was allegedly turned into Pepsi brings dead ancestors back from the grave in the English-Chinese translation, leading to a considerable fall in both sales and the popularity of the drink in China.

These kinds of mistakes can cause costly damage to a brand’s reputation – and if not, they’ll usually lead to some kind of public mockery that can be difficult to overcome. In such cases, it’s not surprising if litigation is brought against the translation agents responsible for making the mistakes. But the examples mentioned so far, while embarrassing, didn’t actually pose a risk to anyone’s personal safety. However, in cases when the mistranslation is made on an important piece of information which consumers need to be aware of for their own welfare, the legal issues that can arise are far worse.

A legal example

This exact problem was at the heart of a legal battle earlier this year, involving Tesco in the European Court of Justice. The problem? A mistranslation of ‘chocolate powder’ in ingredients lists of a number of Tesco products sold in the Czech Republic. The translation had been made by artificial intelligence, rather than an actual human being. Consequently, the translation was far too literal: it translated to cokoládový prašek, two Czech words meaning ‘chocolate’ and ‘powder’ – but unfortunately for Tesco, Czech people would never use the phrase in this context. Instead, they term the ingredient cokoláda v prášku, which translated into English means ‘chocolate in powder.’ Tesco argued that the error was minor and, accordingly, unimportant; but the Czech authorities were adamant that the mistake was major enough to recall the product. The ECJ agreed, and ruled that compound ingredients should be “labelled in the precise language version of the Member State concerned.”

So, it’s important not to make the mistake of deeming small translation errors insignificant – the reality is that it could get you into serious legal difficulties. For Tesco, the outcome could have been much worse, and the supermarket could have found itself at the heart of a negligence claim if someone had an allergic reaction to the mistranslated ingredient.

Reasons not to try AI?

Evidently, it is wise to rely on more than just a machine translation. Take Google Translate, for instance – what happens if you convert a sentence from English into a different language, and then back into English again? Most of the time, you won’t be left with the precise wording you began with. That’s not to say that Google Translate isn’t a handy tool – it can certainly be a huge help when you’re trying to order a drink on holiday! But you need to be  so careful once the law comes into play – and that is before we consider any security or confidentiality-related concerns of using such free-to-use open source applications.

Even the most advanced AI translation tools just aren’t equipped to deal with the legal and linguistic nuances you need them to. So, it’s worth thinking about investing in human translation services instead, that are aware of both the language in your target market, as well as the legal jurisdiction of the country in question.

Conclusion

All in all, it’s vital your translation is accurate – especially as so many firms and businesses are increasingly looking to expand internationally. Otherwise, in an attempt to promote yourself to consumers, you could end up putting them off all together. Just one more story to hone in on this point: when the Jolly Green Giant entered international markets, it was translated into the intimidating green ogre in Arabic – definitely not the image they were going for! Make sure you’re aware of the pitfalls so you don’t get caught out – and hire experts to prevent any difficulties later down the line.

James Halstead is general manager of IMD Legal Translation and Interpreting, and Marcin Durlak is managing partner of IMD Solicitors: imdtranslation.co.uk; imd.co.uk

James Halstead
General Manager
IMD Legal Translation and Interpreting