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David CalbertMay 4, 2015 10:34:00 PM2 min read

Lost in Translation | SF AppWorks

Feliz Cinco De Mayo!

Today is the day each year when it’s tradition in the States to drink Margaritas, hang up the Mexican flag, and celebrate the day of Mexico’s independence with debauchery and a burrito or two.

But did you know that Mexico’s Independence Day is actually observed on September 16th? Cinco de Mayo is the celebration of the Battle of Pueblo when the vastly outnumbered and outgunned Mexican Army defeated French forces during the French intervention. Today, the holiday is an expression of national pride for Mexicans and people of Mexican heritage, but for many American’s something was lost in translation.

In everything from literature to movie subtitles, the act of translation often leaves a lot to be desired in the final product. Language is a product of the human need to communicate complex ideas and profound emotions, and as such, each language has developed into subtle and nuanced vessels. Converting something from one language to another can leave vital elements behind, changing what was originally intended into something very different.

One of the big areas where this can be problematic is when companies, in an effort to reach a more diverse client base, try to translate their website using something like Google Translate.

While you might get away with translating simple sentences like “Welcome to our site”, more complex phrases don’t make it to the other side.

Here is an experiment we did with Google Translate.
This is the first stanza of the famous Wallace Stevens poem The Emperor of Ice-Cream:

“Call the roller of big cigars,
The muscular one, and bid him whip
In kitchen cups concupiscent curds.
Let the wenches dawdle in such dress
As they are used to wear, and let the boys
Bring flowers in last month’s newspapers.
Let be be finale of seem.
The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.”

Here is the Spanish version Google Translate gave us:
“Llame a la rusa de grandes cigarros,
El musculoso, y le oferta látigo
En copas de cocina cuajada concupiscentes.
Deje que los mozas perder el tiempo, de tal vestido
A medida que se utilizan para llevar, y dejar que los chicos
Llevar flores en los periódicos del mes pasado.
Deje que sea final de parecer.
El único emperador es el emperador de los helados.”


And here is that Spanish version translated back into English by Google translate:And here is that Spanish version translated back into English by Google translate:

“Call the Russian large cigars,
The muscular, and whip offer
In kitchen cups concupiscent curds.
Let the girls waste time in such a dress
As they are used to carry, and let the boys
Wear flowers in newspapers last month.
Let your mind becomes final.
The only emperor is the emperor of ice cream.”


The loss of meaning and context is fairly significant. Of course, poetry is an abstract form of writing where translation errors are much more flagrant. With more straight forward writing the missteps might not be as noticeable.

But if you lose an article here, and misinterpret a piece of slang there, you’ll eventually lose what you were trying to say altogether.

The best thing you can do when you need to convey something important in a different language is to employ someone who truly understands the language to visually edit what translations are put forth by whichever translation software you are using.  This is a more costly approach but worth the money to ensure you don’t offend the very audience you’re trying so hard to reach.