Lost in Translation


Last weekend I spent a very pleasant few days in sunny Marseille, France’s second city and, it seems, a global centre for enthusiastic joggers.

When I’m in a new place I like to get my bearings by jumping on one of those open-topped tourist buses and doing a complete loop while doing my best to listen to the commentary through those cheap, tinny headphones.

The first thing that struck me about the English commentary in Marseille was the fact the voiceover artist appeared to have an antipodean twang to her voice.

Then I began to notice the odd turns of phrase she was using. One particular comment I noted at the time was: “If my description has caused you hunger you may choose to eat in one of the excellent restaurants here”.

In the cold light of day – and in pixellated print – it makes sense, it’s complete and it has all the right words, but not necessarily in the right order.

Read out loud it’s artificial. It’s clumsy. It’s just wrong.

And it led me to want to make three separate points:


1  The best way to test your copy is to read it out loud

I have an article tucked away somewhere that describes my checklist for good copy. I’ll dig it out and post it in a future blog.

For the moment, I’ll focus on my number one tip. Always read your own copy out loud.

Good copy is conversational and natural.

So if when you read it out loud it sounds phoney you’ve got something wrong.

2  Always look for ways to add value

The voiceover artist no doubt did her basic job. She read out the text provided and even injected a bit of character from time to time.

But from her accent I’m guessing she was a native English speaker. She must have realised that many of the lines she was reading were clumsy, literal translations.

What an opportunity to add value (and/or earn a little extra) by highlighting the particularly egregious examples and suggesting an alternative.

Well, maybe she tried.

3  Potential for a new service

More than the voiceover artist, I feel the translators let the bus company down.

I know from personal experience in commissioning a translation from English to German how these things can slip through. One piece of copy I wrote about a new model of Porsche carefully described the comfortable seats for the driver and passenger.

The German version stated the Porsche designers had managed to fit a sofa in the car.

And we’ve all seen those amusing mistranslations in Chinese hotels that do the rounds on Twitter.

Translation is one of those things it’s immensely difficult for the client to check.

I’ve even come across people who rely on Google Translate to convert their emails into other languages. Now that’s really dangerous.

Which has led me to an idea for a new service from Glass Halo.

Post-translation copywriting.

Okay. So maybe it’s not that new. We were approached some time ago by a Saudi Arabian group asking for a similar service.

But sensing a very real gap in the market it’s one I intend to pursue.

My challenge, of course, is that my market is likely to comprise non-English speaking organisations. Which means my marketing messages will be subject to exactly the same mistranslation dangers I aim to address.

Does anyone know any decent native French-speaking translators?

Merci bien.