The High Cost of Inaccuracy in Translating Technical Texts (or What Can Go Wrong in Technical Translation)

Inaccuracies when translating technical texts can lead directly to problems such as misuse of a device. But the initial error can also cause a domino effect that leads to a cascade of other problems, some of which may not be apparent right away.

Companies may have to deal with costs in a variety of areas, depending on the nature of the error, the type of documentation involved, and the specifics of what was incorrectly translated.

In this article, we will first examine problems that are directly linked to a mistranslation when translating technical texts. Then we will look at additional costs that may stem from the original issue.

Problems caused by inaccuracies in technical translation

Operating errors

Given that many technical translations involve user manuals or documentation used to install or configure a product, one of the main consequences of mistranslation can be an operating error.

Jody Byrne, a professor who specializes in technical translation, found a case in Germany where a translation error placed the public at risk. When reading the manual for a bread-making machine, users were told that it was normal to see the machine emit smoke—but the original English text had said “steam,” and the German translator confused the two words.

“Unfortunately, a defect in the product meant that it overheated when used, releasing clouds of poisonous smoke. With reassurances from the instructions that this was normal and nothing to worry about, users allowed the smoke to fill the room. Naturally, the product’s manufacturer had to pay compensation to affected users as well as recall the product, all of which damaged the manufacturer’s reputation.”

Similarly, the French Ministry of Education recently had to deal with fallout from a translation error on self-testing kits for COVID that were distributed to French high schools. A mistranslation in the instructions said that if one line showed up on the test, it was a positive result; if two lines appeared, it was also a positive result. 

The ministry had spent nearly 250 million Euros purchasing the kits, and nearly half of the ones sent out had this error, leading to an influx of false positives. Any test results from before the error was discovered were likely useless.

Damage to a company’s public image

Even if an inaccuracy is corrected before it causes physical harm, incorrectly translating technical texts can cause damage to a brand’s image. 

For example, the Canadian retailer Home Hardware was the subject of several newspaper articles because of a dangerous mistranslation. Shoppers found that the company had mislabeled lye crystals in French as soda ash, which does not require the same careful handling as lye. Worse still, the company received a second round of negative publicity weeks later, when journalists reported that the packaging mistake had not been corrected and the product was still for sale.

In the digital age, bad press lives on indefinitely, available as the result of a Google search. An especially egregious (or funny) error might be included in a roundup of translation errors, which may be posted and re-posted on blogs for years to come.

The cost of responding to an inaccuracy in technical translation

Once an inaccuracy or mistranslation has been discovered, companies need to work quickly to limit the damage that it can cause. These response costs take many forms, among them:

Product recalls

In 2001, U.S. consumer goods company Mead Johnson was alerted to an issue with the Spanish-language instructions on cans of its baby formula, Nutramigen. In total, nearly 4.6 million packages of formula were recalled, because the Spanish instructions could have led caregivers to use excessively diluted formula, putting infants at serious health risk. 

The packaging error was identified by a Spanish-speaking customer who called the company to complain. Once they were made aware, the company had to shoulder the cost of recalling the containers that had already been purchased. Then they also had to pay to distribute stickers and tear sheets for the cans that remained on store shelves.

Legal fees

Even though few translation-related cases end up in court, companies can still accrue significant legal costs related to inaccuracies in technical translations. In fact, skillful work by attorneys may be the very reason that few cases go to trial. That work comes at a price, however, and companies can quickly end up with significant legal bills as lawyers help them navigate a crisis.

In the baby formula case discussed above, Mead Johnson was ultimately subject to a class-action lawsuit on behalf of affected children. The costs included over $3 million in product discounts, more than $100,000 in charitable donations, and the plaintiffs’ legal fees—not including, of course, the company’s own legal fees.

Review and retranslation

When Amazon launched its Swedish website in fall 2020, users immediately found dozens of translation errors, including several that used offensive language in place of the correct term. Because of Amazon’s global presence, the story made headlines worldwide—and Amazon no doubt incurred additional costs from having to review and edit much of the translated content.

They are not alone—many companies have had to re-translate material after finding an inaccuracy. It often happens behind closed doors: an employee or a customer reports an issue, and the content undergoes additional review. If the inaccuracy is minor, the material may be revised and then re-released; if major issues are found, the content may require re-translation.

Of course, many translation providers will fix errors free of charge. However, if a translation was done in-house, the solution may involve hiring a third party to review or re-translate.

If an error occurs in printed material, the costs increase even further—once the new or revised translation is complete, it needs to be printed and distributed again.

Regulatory penalties

Inaccuracies during the technical translation process, particularly when it comes to labeling, can incur fines from regulatory bodies. Import bans and other consequences may also be handed down, depending on the severity of the issue.

A Chinese drug manufacturer mistranslated the label for one of its products, incorrectly identifying the active ingredient in an anti-itch lotion. As a result, the United States Food & Drug Administration sent them a warning letter, advising that if they did not put a quality control process in place, they were at risk of not having future drugs approved for import into the U.S.

Crisis public relations

In some cases, companies identify and correct technical translation issues without it becoming public knowledge. 

However, if the media is alerted to an issue—or if it goes viral online, the company may choose to retain a specialized public relations firm. Crisis PR firms help companies strategize about how to protect their image. They may also issue press releases, provide media training for the executive team, and even field calls from journalists. 

How to avoid incurring costs due to inaccuracies in technical translation

Translating Technical Texts

When you partner with a company that is experienced in translating technical texts, you can reduce the likelihood of costly inaccuracies or mistranslations.

Our formula for high-quality technical translations is simple: we hire subject matter experts who only work on texts in their fields. The translators we hire are not only fluent in the target language but also familiar with the culture where it is used. We also use glossaries created specifically for your organization, and pair them with technology that helps our translators ensure greater accuracy. 

When questions arise, we reach out to our clients for their expert guidance and constantly update our glossaries with new terms. We also pride ourselves on a strict quality assurance process that allows us to detect and address any inaccuracies early in the translation workflow.

The next time your company is looking to translating technical texts, contact Art One Translations to learn more about the types of technical translations we provide and the language pairs and specialty fields we handle.

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