How to avoid getting "lost in translation"

You’d think translation would be straightforward – just change one set of words for the corresponding ones in another language and you’re away. But translation is more than just the words. It’s as much about context, tone and aim.

Effective translation will convey the full meaning of a text, so that it reads as the writer intended in their mother tongue. Here are some tips for you to avoid getting “lost in translation”.

Understand the source text

It might sound obvious, but a simple lack of understanding of the text you want to translate is one of the main causes of poorly translated copy. Many mistranslations come down to a lack of proficiency in the source language and an inability to make sense of complex source text. Being bi-lingual does not necessarily mean you can translate the source text effectively.

If you want high quality accurate translations follow these tips:

  • Send a detailed brief that clarifies the meaning of complex source texts (colloquial expressions, humor, double meaning, cultural content).
  • Hire a professional translator who is living in the country you want to connect with. Language changes fast so someone who left the country 5+ years ago may well be out of date. Even living in a different region in the country can make a difference to the style and tone of the translation, so keep this in mind when you’re hiring.
  • Send the visual and original file to your translators – it’s helpful for them to see it and fully understand it before they can adapt it for their own.

Problems associated with a translator’s own interpretation

Because of their own experience, translators may interpret the source document in a certain way, despite of their fluency in the source language. This will affect the way the text is read in the target market.

If you want to make sure your text does not get twisted by a translator’s interpretation, try these tips:

  • Always get your translated text proofread by a second professional linguist, this will avoid mistakes and too personal levels of interpretation.
  • Give your translator a very comprehensive brief including lots of background information. Let them know the story of the campaign. Tell them how the source text was developed. Make clear the intention behind the copy, and protect anything that absolutely must be retained in the target copy. Make the target market crystal clear so that your translator understands exactly who they are writing for.
  • Hire a proofreader/editor – they will make the difference between a translated text and a text that flows naturally in the target language.

Mastering the target language

Just as they would do in the source language, translators should know all the characteristics of the target language. The semantic (aphorisms, standardised terms, etc.) and cultural (idioms, proverbs, puns) difficulties of the translation.

Work with translators who are experts in their field. Some translators excel at translating medical texts, but would struggle translating legal copy so that it can be read with the same professional ease. Technical experts can translate complex technical documents but might do a clumsy job translating a holiday website.

The risk with assigning your copy to any translator is that if they are not experts in your field they may deliver a word for word translation or just convey the superficial meaning of the text; without an expert in-market linguist your intended meaning will get “lost in translation”.

Some tips to help you get the most out of your translator:

  • Writing skills are as important as being bilingual
  • Send your text to be translated to native speakers only
  • On top of a detailed brief, do send reference files, including style guides, translation memory and glossaries to your linguists
  • Be available to answer any question your linguists may have

Getting the right level of translation and cultural insight

You can’t translate a brochure in the same way you would translate a website, an email or a tagline. Each medium has its own tone of voice, and needs the right level of translation to ensure it sounds right in the target market.

If you’re looking to translate more creative content, you will need transcreation rather than translation.

The transcreation process is the localisation of communications using the right consumer language and cultural input. It’s the process of adapting a message from one language to another, while maintaining its intent, style, tone and context. A good transcreation will evoke the same emotions in the target language as it does in the source language. If you want to create a gut-level, memorable impact, you’ll need trancreation.

It’s a good idea to pass your creative source text through in-market copywriters to get their cultural insight. This will allow you to get useful information about the impact that your campaign may have in a specific market. Usually, the in-market specialists will analyse the source text, research it and see whether this can really be adapted in their own market, whether the deep meaning of the source text can be rendered in the same way.

Issues around consistency

During the translation process it is important to be consistent and try to follow the same format/tools from the beginning to the end. In that sense, it is useful to keep the same linguistic team and follow a glossary throughout the process. This will ensure the quality of the translation.

Some more tips to maintain consistency:

  • Use a Translation Management System (TMS). This tool helps project managers or linguists to assign tasks or track their projects
  • Use Computer-Assisted Translation software (CAT), to support and facilitate the translation process

Translation length 

Character width and character line height are two important things that must be taken into account when formatting the target text. For instance, Chinese, Japanese and Korean characters, amongst others, are wider and longer in comparison to Latin ones. This means that even if the number of characters from the source text to the target text remains the same, or reduces slightly, the vertical and horizontal spaces required in the script may be much larger.

Keep in mind during the translation process that the number of characters varies depending on the format of the text. When translating subtitles, you must be attentive to the fact that the maximum number of lines is 2, the equivalent of 36-39 characters per line.

For mobile apps or websites, you also need to consider character restrictions – there will be screen space or design limitations.

The same goes for AdWords campaigns as Google and the other search engines have very defined character restrictions. Headlines can be no longer than 35 characters, and you have a maximum of 25 characters for the descriptive lines and the display URL. For double byte languages like Chinese, you need to halve the character count.

In the case of banners, don’t forget that the number of characters is restricted so that the target audience can read it from a distance without having to zoom it in.

Key points to remember:

  • It is recommended to translate and then shorten, rather than trying to do both at the same time
  • Where space is limited, abbreviations can be used
  • A number of different tools and software can be used in order to restrict the character/line number (Subtitling software, QA checks in CAT tools etc.)


Key points to keep you on track:

  • Send your copy to native speakers of the target language only
  • Assign your translation to the appropriate group of experts
  • Send the translated copy to a proofreader/editor
  • Include brand information, competitor analysis, context and tone of voice in your brief
  • Send visuals, translation memory, glossaries and style guides
  • Ask in-market language experts to ensure your campaign is relevant
  • Follow the same terms and glossary from the beginning to the end
  • Make sure your translations fit the restrictions by using the right tools
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