The disservice of bad translations: A practical analysis

While doing research for this topic in my Judiciary Translation class, several translated documents from different agencies in Iowa were considered. At first, this writer thought that the translations available would be atrocious, yet the Spanish translations of many public agencies’ forms were not too bad. A pattern noticed was that, the older the form was, the worse the translation.

Some 2009 dated forms were almost nonsensical, while the 2014 versions had almost no errors. This could lead to a possible hypothesis about the changing demographics of Iowa, and the increasing need for accurate and usable translated forms in order to better serve the diverse population of the region.

Despite the good translations found, there were still some that left much to be desired and are in need of help. In addition, most forms seem not to have a Spanish equivalent. This writer also wonders about the effect of Iowa’s current “English-only” law on the availability of legal forms translated into other languages. The rest of this post includes practice exercises in translation, so knowledge of Spanish is required to get the full effect.

One of the most pervasive yet minor issues found in many translations is the inconsistent accentuation of words. Some of the translations make an attempt at using accent marks properly in the more obvious words, but still manage to miss the mark on putting accent marks on some conjugations, such as those in the future tense. These errors were not enough to change the meaning or hinder the translation of the original message.
The issues found in the sample translations include word order problems, calques, semantic shift, and literal transference of the source language. In the samples below, there are highlights and markings signaling some of the problem areas of the translations.

Sample 1– Iowa Department of Education enrollment form for Child & Adult Care Food program

IDE translation 1
(Click to enlarge)


In the above text, there are issues of literal transference and word order. The form used is not natural to Spanish.

  • Instead of the current form, I would suggest: “El gobierno federal requiere la siguiente información, a fin de velar por el cumplimiento de la Ley de Derechos Civiles.
  • The phrase beginning with “Esta ley…” also has similar problems. I would suggest: “Esta ley señala (o estipula) que los participantes del programa no podrán ser discriminados en base a esta información…” This writer has trouble understanding the meaning of the rest of the phrase, and would require clarification to complete it.
  • The last phrase is wordy and awkward, very unnatural form. I would suggest: “En caso de optar no divulgar tal información, la ley federal requiere que el encargado de este programa señale la raza o etnia [correspondiente] en base a la observación visual o el apellido.”
IDE translation 2
(Click to enlarge)

The rest of the text continues to have several other problems such as calque for words like “cuidador” and “alimentos apropiadamente texturizados”. I would suggest “encargado/a or director de guardería”, and for the other one, I would need further clarification. “Snack” is not translated at all, and I would suggest “merienda” or “tentempié”, depending on the time when the snack was provided. The term “proveer” is used in a very literal manner, making it sound unnatural. I would suggest using “Traer” or “Dar” as alternatives.

Sample 2 – Iowa Workforce Development wage claim form

Wage claim translation 1
(Click to enlarge)


This writer is very familiar with the IWD wage claim form in both English and Spanish, as it was sight-translated often in past endeavors.

  • The first thing noticed is the gender disagreement. “Comisiones” is feminine, so it should say “Comisiones no pagadas” instead of “pagados”.
  • “Si estaba en comisión” is too literal and distorts the meaning, I would suggest “Si le pagaban por comisión…”.
  • Once again, the awkward use of “proveer” rears its head. “Servicios proveídos” is not correct and seems like a calque. I would suggest “Ventas totales realizadas” and “servicios prestados”.
  • The translator for the above text used “deducir” in a literal manner, as “deducir” first meaning is related to research/logic (as in deductive reasoning). I would have used “Si le rebajaron algún monto…”.
  • The translation misuses accent marks on the word “Explique”. “Expliqué” means “I explained”, while “Explique” is “Explain” in the ‘you formal’ imperative.
  • The question related to vacation pay is wordy and stumbles over itself. I would suggest: “¿Cuál es la política de la compañía en cuanto al pago de vacaciones luego de haberse finalizado la relación de trabajo?”.

As  translators and interpreters, maintaining the integrity of the languages in which we work must be a priority. This is why training, reflection, peer-review, and analysis should be integral parts of the language professional’s lifelong career – it is not only important to have excellent grasp of each language, but also to understand the structure and nature of the language and terms used in our work.

P.S: I welcome feedback and translation suggestions and thoughts!

Published by vcmarcano

Vanessa C. Marcano-Kelly is a native of Caracas, Venezuela. She is a certified court interpreter in Iowa and a translator. She is a member of the Iowa Interpreters and Translators' Association and the Midwest Association of Translators and Interpreters, with significant experience in community interpreting, translation, and journalism in English and Spanish. Vanessa has interpreted in community meetings with the Polk County Sheriff, the US Department of Labor, former US Congressman Tom Latham, and at the Food Sovereignty Prize 2014 in Des Moines. She graduated with honors with a BA in Global Studies and French from South Dakota State University, and received a judiciary interpretation and translation specialization certificate from Des Moines Area Community College. She works as a court interpreter in the Des Moines metro, and as a translator for Principal Financial Group, a Fortune 500 company. She has written for several publications, including the Venezuelan magazine Estetica y Salud, and has a passion for linguistics/languages, photography, community involvement, healthier living and travel. Vanessa runs a bilingual, bicultural household with her husband, Michael. Her immediate family lives in Venezuela, Lithuania and the US.

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