A cheap translation trick

Run it backwards and forwards.

I hadn’t thought of it that way, but on reflection it seems to me James is entirely right: the manual is part of the product, and the fact that East Asian-sourced products have hilariously mistranslated manuals isn’t actually funny more than once. And I agree with his prescription that hiring tech writers whose native tongue is the target language is the right fix, albeit expensive. (Plan B might be for the importer to beta-test the manual on actual customers and feed the results back to the manufacturer.)

At least for European languages, though, there’s really no reason to make hilarious mistakes even if you’re too cheap to hire a native tech writer. There are lots of on-line translators, which of course make lots of hilarious mistakes. But it’s possible, as a monoglot, to use those translators to create comprehensible (not idiomatic or grammatically correct, but comprehensible) text in another language by the simple trick of running the translation program forwards and backwards.

Prepare a text in the source language, presumably one of which you’re a native speaker. Run it through the translator into the target language. Then run the result back through the reverse translator and see how it reads in a language you actually speak. If the word you found to translate “connect” comes back as “f*ck,” you can reasonably guess that you were about to make a mistake. A few iterations plus a dictionary will get you perfectly readable, though not elegant, results.

Of course, Mandarin-to-English is a much harder problem than English-to-Spanish, and technical vocabulary is going to pose special problems. But I’d be surprised if you couldn’t do better than the result James quotes without ever involving an expensive English-speaking tech writer in the process.

Update: A reader disagrees with one of the claims above:

C’mon, Mark, bad Asian translations are hilarious much more than once! For example, go down to your local hobby shop and look for tank kits from a Chinese company named Trumpeter. While the newer kits have well-written box blurbs, I think the early ones must have gone through some kind of shareware Mandarin-English translator, the most memorable result being, perhaps, the crediting of the Soviet KV-2 tank of having a “deep-fried turret.” I think they were referring to welding.

I have to admit, “deep-fried turret” is pretty good.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com