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How to Spot a Poor Translation (and Identify a Good One)

There are many ways you can spot a poor translation and identify a good one. Personally, as an owner of a translation company, my perspective is different from that of a proofreader who’s usually more dedicated to spotting and correcting mistakes and improving style. I pay more attention to the overall picture in a translator’s work, not only his language proficiency and writing skills, but also formatting and editing issues which have to do with the use of technologies and, also importantly, researching skills and personality traits that translate into the quality and characteristics of the translator’s work, e.g. how creative a translation is, how bold and resourceful a translator can get in order to solve translation problems, untangle complicated paragraphs, decode complex texts, and so on.

These examples may be illustrative. In Argentine law, there’s more than one term that can be very tricky. For instance, the term locación,in general, refers to a lease. BUT there’s also locación de obra and locación de servicios referring to the situations in which you hire someone to make a certain “thing” or perform a service, respectively. The tricky thing is they are called “locación” as it is also used in a lease, and the parties are called locador/locatario although they could be called cliente/proveedor (client/provider), for instance, which would be much clearer options.

How to Spot a Poor Translation

In our translators’ admission test we used to include the title and introductory paragraph of a services agreement to be translated from Spanish to English. It was called Locación de Servicios, which most translators would translate as Services Agreement or Contract; a few would write *Services Lease, but, almost invariably, most would then translate the parties as Lessor and Lessee even though it was absolutely clear there was no lease involved. It goes without saying that this happens when the translator gets stuck to the words irrespective of their meaning and context.

Just to prove my point: Once I mentioned (post Using a Bit of Spanish in Your Emails) that Google translate could not be trusted and, thus, was not to be considered competition. Google translate suggests “location of services” as the translation of locación de servicios.

The second text we used to test applicants was an extract from the ICSID Convention, Regulations and Rules. There are official translations and they are all available on the Web. Therefore, a good translator should find the official version and use it – not translate freely. Many, though, will translate sometimes because they do not know there is an official version in both languages, while other times, even though they know there is an official version, they think the official version is “not good” or using the official version would be “cheating” (as if doing that were not part of the translators’ work).

These were the tests:

Please translate this text into English:


Entre la empresa . . . . . . . . . . . con domicilio social en . . . . . . . . . . representada en este acto por el señor . . . . . quien acredita identidad y representación con . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . por un lado, en adelante “el locatario” y el señor . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . domiciliado en . . . . . . . . . . . . . , quien acredita identidad con DNI . . . . . . . . . . . . , “el locador”, convienen en celebrar el presente conforme a las siguientes condiciones:

Example of a poor translation:


By and between the company . . . . . . domiciled at . . . . . . represented in this act by Mr. . . . . . whose identity and representation is proven by . . . . party of the first part, hereinafter referred to as “the Lessee” and Mr. . . . . . . domiciled at . . . . . . whose identity is proven by . . . . . . , “the Lessor”, the present agreement is made and entered into subject to the following terms and conditions:

Example of a good translation:


This Agreement is entered into between . . . . . . , a company with offices at . . . . . . . . . . herein represented by . . . . . . , holder of ID # . . . . . , duly empowered to act as evidenced by . . . . . (“Client”) and . . . . . . . . , residing at . . . . . . . . , holder of ID # . . . . . . (“Service Provider”) subject to the following terms and conditions:

Please translate this text into Spanish:


1. The Tribunal shall be deemed to be constituted and the proceeding to have begun on the date the Secretary-General notifies the parties that all the arbitrators have accepted their appointment.

Example of a poor translation:


1. Se considerará que el Tribunal se haya constituido y que el arbitraje ha comenzado cuando el Secretario General hubiere notificado a las partes de la aceptación de las designaciones por parte de todos los árbitros.

Example of a good translation:


1. Se entenderá que el tribunal se ha constituido y que el procedimiento se ha iniciado en la fecha en que el Secretario General notifique a las partes que todos los árbitros han aceptado sus nombramientos.

This is an official version and should be quoted literally, AS IS. (Source:

What other examples can you share with us of poor vs. good quality translations?

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