Q: What do you get when you when you mix machine translation, like GT, and a poor translation process?

A: You never know until its done. It could be a cat, a cake, a funny tattoo, or a warning to not take small balls.

It’s amazing how true the proverb “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure”. The advice behind this saying is that it takes less time, effort, money, etc. to make sure something is right or corrected early on than it does later.

Recently, the Western Railway (WR), one of the 17 zones of Indian Railways, experienced a translation error that caused a costly recall of all the warning stickers. New stickers need to be reprinted and installed again. The correct warning sticker was intended to advise travelers to not take shortcuts. This was a safety message to help keep people out of harm’s way. However, instead, the mistranslation advised travelers, “Do not take small balls”.

Western Railway suggested the error was caused by “the person in charge of translating”, GT and printing stickers without due verification…”. But was it really? I am not so sure. I believe the real reason is that they didn’t follow a good process. Either they didn’t have one or they didn’t follow it.

I don’t want to presume that they didn’t have one. However, I always cringe when a finger is pointed at a specific person. Yes, one person can mess up a process. However, good processes should have as few single points of failure as possible. Often, when someone harps on the“process”, for me it invokes feelings of inefficiency and delay. However, in this case, trouble could have been avoided by a simple native review of the translation. Then the person in charge and the reviewer could have had a good laugh, corrected it, and moved on. That’s not the best process, but it should catch an error like this.

We published a white paper a few years ago called “The Hierarchy of Language Services”. It outlines very clearly the different levels of quality and accuracy within language services and helps explain a high-quality process that doesn’t slow things down. If you need a copy of the white paper, feel free to email us.

Let’s make the world a better place by at least having native linguists review translations. Good luck to WR in improving their processes.