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Accurate translations crucial to business

This screen capture shows a page of the federal government's Spanish-language website to sign up for health insurance. The site is plagued with stilted and inaccurate translations.

This screen capture shows a page of the federal government’s Spanish-language website to sign up for health insurance. The site is plagued with stilted and inaccurate translations.

Having watched the struggles that the Affordable Care Act has experienced in its implementation, another misstep has occurred, which tends to be one of the most-common mistakes in international business: bad translations.

Apparently, the ACA’s Spanish website,, not only was launched late, but littered with bad English-to-Spanish translations that appeared to have been computer-generated.

In my experience, treating language translation of materials as an afterthought is one of the most-common mistakes that organizations and private businesses make. Throughout the years, I have witnessed companies with great products/services that have a lot of potential in foreign markets take two steps backward because they had a lax attitude toward translating their product information correctly. This attitude is based on two factors.

The first is a tendency towards thriftiness and the desire to save a couple of bucks. When entering a new market, especially a foreign one, many companies often dedicate a lot of time and resources in the hope they will gain a foothold. Travel, market research, logistical and financial concerns tend to dominate a manager’s concerns. Spending adequate time and money to properly translate information on a company and its products seems to fall by the wayside in importance.

I have seen companies spend hundreds of thousands of dollars exploring a foreign market, establishing offices there, and increasing their marketing budget for the new venture, yet hand the translation responsibilities to an unqualified person within the company. When entering certain markets, language can be an indicator of one’s education, culture and social status. In Latin American markets such as Mexico, this is especially true. This contrasts greatly with a country such as the U.S., where many prominent, respected citizens speak a form of English that would be considered bad by any textbook standards.

Just because somebody has a last name such as Sanchez, Martinez, or Pacheco does not mean that they are qualified to do Spanish translations — neither does the fact that the person speaks Spanish, grew up speaking Spanish or has a Spanish degree qualify a person to do translations. This is a common misconception. Countries can have a multitude of intricacies in terms of how certain words are used for communication.

In Mexico, the word “estacionar” is used to refer to parking a vehicle. Using the word “parquear” would brand a person as a Spanglish speaker, yet when I was in Costa Rica, the word was a commonly used and acceptable word to refer to parking.

Not understanding the local dialect is a mistake not only committed by American companies. Several years ago, the government of the Mexican state of Chihuahua launched a promotional campaign to promote tourism in an effort to counteract the negative press it was receiving because of the drug wars. The translation of the campaign’s main slogan, “Chihuahua, tierra de encuentros” (“Chihuahua, the meeting place land”) was given to a lady who had studied English in the U.S. Unfortunately, her literal translation was “Chihuahua, land of encounters,” not a good translation for American tourists already afraid of traveling there. Not knowing linguistic differences can damage a company’s image in front of potential new clients or associates. Therefore, a couple of tips are in order if your organization finds itself in need of translating its materials into a foreign language.

First, unless you are prepared to handle embarrassments, stay away from computer-generated translations, which often overlook the real intention of words or phrases. Better to spend money upfront on a good translation than to scramble after damage has been done to the organization’s image.

If you are going to use a “certified” translator (and certification can vary from language to language and country to country), ask for references. Don’t be afraid to ask for the contact information of clients who have done business with the translator in order to verify that they were satisfied with the work. Well-respected translators often have years of study and experience in a certain language. Some are specialized in a particular field (i.e. engineering, science, and popular culture). It is a good tactic to shop around for a translator who is professional and with whom you have a good synergy – this is important, as it is common for a translator to be in constant communication with a company to verify the intent of words and phrases.

When receiving translated documents, have them read by people who speak the language in the market you are targeting, and ask them to provide you with their feedback. It never hurts to have multiple sets of eyes looking at a translation before you commit it to print. These tips will help your company develop a professional image and minimize your chances of embarrassment.

Jerry Pacheco is the executive director of the International Business Accelerator, a nonprofit trade counseling program of the New Mexico Small Business Development Centers Network. He can be reached at 575-589-2200 or at


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