Last week we posted about a poor Welsh translation made by the chain B&Q reported on the BBC. Some might argue the incident doesn’t matter to them because Welsh isn’t a really a broadly-used language internationally. Focusing on the language is ignoring the point. Our point is that a local business used Machine Translation (MT), with all the best of intentions to reach a local audience, yet without doing even basic proofing or editing. It is unsurprising it blew up in their faces. Which harms the brand in all languages, including English.

Today, it’s the Daily Mail’s turn to spot poor results of what was likely Machine Translation. In this case, in the world’s most spoken-language, Chinese, and also, its rendering into English. Their mocking article, whose very title isn’t particularly business-appropriate, focuses on restaurateurs in Shanghai.

The commonality with the Welsh story is this: small business owners are not known for having large budgets for translation, hence the attraction to using free and open web tools, like Google Translate. Yet it might pay small business owners to submit machine translations for proofing and editing to avoid public embarrassment and shaming. And, in cases where you have specialty items and idioms, maybe it pays to have a full human translation done. Such a cost can be seen as an investment up-front to save from the potential of lost business and pain of embarrassment.

One example from the Daily Mail’s article has to do with the Chinese term “随便” (suíbiàn) which an unfortunate Shanghai menu had translated into English as “Whatever.” That is indeed a quite common translation. Though it is unlikely you ordered a plate or bowl of “whatever.”

There are multiple renderings of this word, from “casual” or “arbitrary,” to “as one pleases” to “wanton” (that is, “careless behavior;” not to be confused with the Chinese food wonton). Mandarin House has a whole article about the term, which can range idiomatically or contextually from browsing while shopping (“only looking”), to “you choose for me,” to “make yourself at home” and “please help yourself to eat.” So it can range anywhere from the blithe to the pejorative in meaning.

The subscript below the translation reads “等答巢料” (Děng dá cháo liào), the latter half of which (“巢料”) infers some sort of “nesting material,” so it doesn’t seem to be much help.

So what does it mean in this case? This is something a computer would have a hard time to answer, or even a human who had no context or contact with the staff, but a quick chat with the restaurateur or cook would be able to answer these questions in a heartbeat.

While it is easy to mock and deride “Chinglish,” this happens in many linguistic contexts. An actual solution to the problem of poor translations would be more emphasis on available services for translation and localization for small businesses here and abroad.

What are your thoughts? Have you ever run into situation that would have been immediately improved with a quick editorial or proofing job? We’d love to hear your stories. Email us at [email protected] and let us know.