Posted by: janecronin | November 13, 2016

Mistranslation technology

I’m hoping that quite a few of my readers will agree with the following reflection.  Why on earth don´t people check their translations with native speakers?  This question applies as much to Spanish business proudly proclaiming “English spoken” as to those English businesses in Spain whose publicity clearly demonstrates a mixture of Google and a well-thumbed copy of their Sunny Spanish phrasebook.  Hardly a day goes by without coming across an example of someone who has parted with good money to create a sign or print an advert without checking their Spanish with a single one of the country’s 46 million inhabitants or their English with the scores of people who walk past their front door every day.

Here are a few examples just in my most immediate vicinity.   About 500 metres from my home there is a business with a huge permanent sign pointing to its entrance.  It tells me on its premise I will find an “exposure” of its tiles.  Someone looked up “exposición” in the dictionary and discovered it could be either “exhibition” or “exposure”, and rather than asking one of the many local English speakers, they just chose the translation that sounded most likely to them.   Exactly the same process occurred in the bar down the road.  Whenever I go there for a snack with English speaking friends we are presented with the “carta” in Spanish and the “letter” in English.  “Carta” in English is either “letter”, “menu” or “card” so they went with “letter”, probably because it was the first word in the list.

I’m sure you can cite hundreds of similar examples.  In my very first year in Spain in the eighties I had a work colleague who used to go to read a local restaurant menu, just to cheer himself up when he felt depressed, because it made him laugh so much.  I remember that one of his favourites was “squid in his ink”.  I even once came across an estate agent who advertised “casa” as “he/she marries” and “cocina” as “he/she cooks”.  Another great memory was getting an attack of giggles with my mother in a very posh hotel in Galicia which was serving “fairy octopus”.  Well it was funny at the time, especially as very serious member of staff sat and glared at us.

The British in Spain are far from immune to the same mistakes.  Many times I’ve been asked to look over a website or advert that someone has translated through Google and had to tell them that the whole thing needs to be rewritten for it to sound anything like something a Spanish person would recognise as their own language.  The truth is that no matter how much translation technology is developing, and it has made the most amazing advances, it still cannot replace human intervention.   The complexities of context, tone, register and cultural differences mean that reliable translation is still in the hands of the language native speaker.   The good news is, there are plenty of them or us around.


  1. There is a scrap disposal company near us in Nijar, Almeria which has a large sign reading “Logiscrap”. For some reason, all us English people read this as “Logis Crap”. Probably says more about us than them. Occasionally, I notice signs which although in perfectly adequate English, just sound wrong – for instance, “Woman Hair” just seems wrong for a ladies’ hairdresser.

    • Haha – “woman hair” has reminded me of another one in a nearby hairdresser’s – “knight’s cut” (corte de caballero – gentlemen’s haircut).

  2. Couldn’t agree more about mistranslations. This why we always ask for the menu in Spanish because there is a better chance of knowing what we are ordering. The posh restaurant on the Lo Pagan seafront El Rubio 360 had a few clangers when it first opened. It made me laugh and took my mind of the prices. Also saw a restaurant advertising a “Flemish” dancing night. Maybe they did the flamenco in clogs!

  3. I know exactly what you mean, Jane! I think our mental reactions vary on a spectrum of incredulity, frustration or even downright dismay to amusement (as you penned so eloquently). When it’s a serious subject it is more of concern, though.

    If you would like to see some local examples from this part of the Costa Blanca, take a look at my article and photos here:

    I’m not sure if Mas y Mas employees went online to give it a low vote, but if you and your readers are feeling generous – please – give it a good vote to balance out the opinions and express your shared view(s)!

    Similarly, more photos of another appalling example here:
    – see my questions in red at the bottom – if you can think of any more to add (just for fun), send me a reply!

    Best wishes and
    Happy language learing, be it Spanish or English …


  4. ‘learning’. Can’t edit the above!

    • Appalling examples abound!!

  5. Much as I agree with the need for accuracy it does provide a lot of laughs.
    A quiet word with the author usually is much appreciated.

    • Hi, I certainly agree about the laughs!

  6. Great post!

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