Oops! Mistranslated French

No Word-for-Word

The sad part in human translation services is that exact translations are not always the BEST translations; sometime trans-creation is needed to achieve best quality translations. Mostly it is proverbs and sayings, which are so colorful and fanciful hence result in literal translations that would startle and cause apprehension. It is always fun to learn some French proverbs, it is an essential ingredient to become fluent in the language. Using some appropriate proverbs into your speech help you in acculturation and appear more local.

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Fun with Miss Translation

It is best to speak the new language you are learning; and even better if you practice some irritating and pretentious proverbs. It is very amusing to give very literal translations.

The new trick:

“on n’apprend pas aux vieux singes à faire des grimaces”

Literal meaning: ‘you can’t teach old monkeys to make faces!’

Fair English translation: ‘you can’t teach an old dog new tricks’

but it’s much more fun to use the literal version.

The one about the youth:

“si jeunesse savait, si vieillesse pouvait”

Literal meaning: ‘Youth is wasted on the young,’

Fair English Translation: ‘If youth only knew, if old age only could.’

It captures a sadness that comes with experience that I find very affecting, and lacks the English version’s cynicism.

“un malheur ne vient jamais seul”

Literal meaning: ‘misfortune never arrives alone’ 

Fair English Translation: ‘When it rains, it pours’ but the literal translation

Of course, translation professionals have an odd sense of humor as well as sense of language. Which is why the profession is joined with so much solitude!

Translators beware: False friends in Russian

Many Russian words – mostly with Latin or Greek roots – came to Russia from the Western European languages. However, today they have a much narrower or even a completely different definition. This can confuse the inexperienced translator.

False friends in Russian


In Italian accordo means ‘consonance’. In other languages words with this root can have a broader meaning, such as ‘consent’, ‘agreement’, or ‘arrangement’. However, in Russian the word is used only as a musical term to mean “a combination of several musical sounds of different pitch perceived in harmony.”


Borrowed from the French with origins in Latin. In Latin, artist means ‘craftsman, master’. In modern Russian the definition of this word is more limited than in other languages: Artists are usually actors who perform on stage (theater, opera, pop music) or in film. “You’re such an artist!” can be said about someone who has done something particular, extravagant or even amazing. But unlike in English, a painter cannot be called an artist in Russian.


A question of taste: The untranslatable word ‘poshlost’

A question of taste: The untranslatable word ‘poshlost’

Borrowed from the Greek, in which deka (dekados) meant ‘a set of ten’. The word exists in many European languages, meaning a period of ten years. In Russian, however, dekada means a period of ten days.


Borrowed from the German Klimax, which originated from the Greek, meaning ‘ladder’. In English the word ‘climax’ has a broad definition: It can mean culmination, denouement, the highest point of any process. In Russian (as in other languages) this is a medical term meaning “the cessation of a woman’s reproductive ability, which is followed by disruption and then conclusion of menstruation”.


Borrowed from the German Konduktor, which originated in the Latin conductor, meaning “an escort, one who accompanies”. In some modern European languages the word means the director of an orchestra. But in Russian it only means “a public transportation worker who sells passengers tickets” – a meaning which still exists in English. In Russia a konduktor is usually found on buses and trolleybuses.


Borrowed from the German Magasin (or the Dutch magasijn), which originated from the Arabic makhzan, meaning storehouse. In most modern European languages the meaning of this word has changed: It means a periodical publication – though in English it is also used to describe a container for rounds of ammunition that is attached to a gun, so in this case it preserves something of its original meaning of a ‘storehouse’. In the Russian the meaning has shifted, but not so radically: A magazin is first and foremost a space for retailers.


The 10 most well-known Russian words

The 10 most well-known Russian words

Borrowed from the German Prospekt, which had come from the Latin prospectus, meaning, ‘view, look’. In modern Russian the word has three meanings: “a long, wide and straight street”; “a brief summary of a publication about to be printed (for example, a scientific monograph pamphlet)”; or “an informative publication that advertises something (for example, a company prospectus). But it is not used in the meaning of ‘perspective’, ‘view’ or ‘outlook for the future’ as in modern English.


Borrowed from the German Spekulation, which had come from the Latin speculatio, meaning ‘investigating, exploring’. In modern Russian this word, meaning “buying and selling property, valuables, products, goods, etc. in order to obtain profit (usually by using various prices)” has an extremely negative connotation (this goes back to Soviet times, when prices on all goods were centrally fixed). The other meaning, ‘a philosophical conjecture’, is exceptionally rare.


Borrowed from the German Familie, which had come from the Latin familia, meaning the household. Modern European languages use this word to define the members of a household, the family. In Russian the word familiya means surname, family name; the name added to everyone’s personal name.

Velvet and satin

These are names of two fabrics that are often confused in human language translation. The right Russian translation of the word velvet is barkhat, and of the ward satin – atlas. The Russian word velvet means corduroy; and the Russian satin means a poor type of atlas, one of the cheapest fabrics, a symbol of wretchedness (in Soviet times it was used for sewing the wide, so-called ‘family’ underwear).

Equilibrium between Humans and Automation

It’s all about Trust.

There’s an enthralling analogy between aircraft operation and language services. To conclude both have adequate technology but still need human involvement. Like an aircraft cannot be completely flown without a human pilot; similarly it would be unwise to depend on entirely automated technology. Hence, I conclude a complete shift to machine translation will not happen in the language industry.

Ever wonder why the doors to the pilot cockpit on commercial airline flights are left open during passenger boarding? It appears that out that the passengers have a charming and very human need to peer into the cockpit and see the pilots sitting there. The airlines know this, so they leave the doors open for the passengers during boarding so we can all scratch this persistent little itch of need and reassurance.

It’s also why the pilots talk to us over the intercom during the flight.

So why all this soft-touch hand-holding of passengers? The pilots are actually flying the plane for one reason only: Trust. The plane can fly perfectly well without them and in fact mostly does. If you think translators feel threatened by the encroaching wave of next-generation machine translation software, consider the case of poor commercial airline pilots.


Computer automation today – the current state of technology – can fly commercial aircraft more safely, reliably and flawlessly; respond more nimbly and quickly to changes, and navigate seamlessly through more potential horrific disasters better than any human pilot can.

That’s a potential financial blockbuster for an eternally struggling airline industry. So why hasn’t that happened yet?

The passengers. They would stay away in droves.

Even a hopelessly romantic technophile like me would think twice about flying across the country on an aircraft flown entirely by computer. Although the airlines would sell a LOT of alcohol on those flights.

Cost of Failure

The calculus is different for a passenger because the cost of failure dramatically outweighs every other consideration. The global civil aviation infrastructure has been built up over the last 50 years to maximize safety. It’s this investment in a massive safety culture that allowed commercial air travel to become a commodity. In practical terms, modern civil aviation beat the cost of failure right out of the equation.

Airlines still struggle to differentiate on quality, but they operate in a hyper-competitive, price-driven, razor-thin-profit commodity market because commercial air travel has been engineered to be safer than any other activity in human life.

Good for us passengers. Very bad for the airlines’ bottom line.

Risk and Trust in the Language Services Market

So now we come to the language services market, where the cost of failure is very much alive. In this context, translation customers large and small find themselves faced with the following scenario:

  • They have a real (often vital) need for language services
  • They can’t judge or assess product quality themselves
  • They have a desire (like we all do) not to look foolish or embarrass their company
  • They would like to keep their jobs
  • Their business must succeed in a highly competitive environment

There are risks everywhere in that description – which is ultimately about human emotions in response to doubt, uncertainty, and vulnerability.

What’s most interesting about these requirements is that they mostly lie outside the clients’ own direct control. So their objective in seeking out language services suppliers is to mitigate all these risks. That means that their decision-making process extends to areas far beyond the scope of the physical translation alone.

The persistent laser focus on “quality” and post-editing of machine translation to the exclusion of what language services clients actually need, want and buy every day undermines the financial viability of that approach.

So in addition to translation “quality,” clients value a whole host of soft-touch capabilities whose purpose is to engender trust and confidence and protect them from disaster, just like the (live human expert) airline pilots do.

Here are some examples of how companies that purchase translation services seek to mitigate those risks:

  • They dilute their risk by selecting multiple suppliers
  • They choose suppliers with diverse linguistic and technical capabilities
  • They utilize client review teams
  • They request translation certification
  • They require guarantees, warranties or the right to require revisions

In addition to alleviating obvious risks, language service providers also add value in many other important and essential ways because we see things our clients are unlikely to see. That’s because our clients typically are not language people, do not inhabit the target culture, are not experts in foreign character set encoding, do not give much thought to different time and date formats around the world, etc.

What if Machine Translation becomes perfect?

A reasonable objection to this whole argument is that improving machine translation to the point where it’s indistinguishable from human translation services does in fact address the trust issue and resolves it.

In my view that objection fails because the uncertainty never goes away. Machine translation engines deal in the currency of disambiguation and semantic mapping but never eliminate ambiguity or doubt or even claim to. So error and doubt are actually assumed to perpetually exist in the solution.


Even if this weren’t true, translation users for decades have sought – and largely succeeded – in offloading every possible conceivable risk and remedy onto the translation service providers themselves. Our customers are airline passengers and they expect us – the pilots – to make sure they get home safely. If we use automation in our work, it better not harm them or their business.

a.      Reduced expectations and market realities

This stand-off of sorts has led to many unusually tense – and sometimes baffling – discussions between translation users who are increasingly demanding speed, savings and scalability via machine translation and hybrid MT/TM technology, while language service companies – fully aware of the downside risks that will come back to haunt them – are urging these same clients to abandon client review, adopt “reasonable” (dramatically reduced) expectations, and introduce end-user usability testing that measures outcomes rather than translation accuracy.

b.     The fruits of long endeavors

These attempts to find common ground will continue in the near-term, but the two sides would be far better served if they focused on the herd of elephants milling around the room with “risk,” “trust,” and “liability” signs hanging around their necks.

In the coming decades stand-alone machine translation and other high-speed language automation technologies are going to branch off and serve different markets than will human translation, with its focus on absolute precision, insight, creativity and impact. This is especially true of the boutique end of the market where even today there are not enough skilled human translators to meet demand.

We are already seeing new emerging markets where translation needs are beginning to explode, exact precision is less urgent and speed is paramount – online help desk forums, chat rooms, and quick feedback surveys are some examples, with the Twitter universe standing next in line.

And of course translators – the ultimate technology early adapters – will continue to be among the most ardent users of appropriate language technology in their day-to-day work lives.

Happily this means that the global language services market will diversify and expand in all dimensions to accommodate these new realities. It’s helpful if we all recognize that technology rarely destroys; it more commonly amplifies, or explodes in a galaxy of new choices. Machine translation itself is just a new river in a vast ecosystem.