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No Harm, No Foul

It is important to differentiate between different levels of translation error severity.I wrote a couple of posts in the past about how important it was to focus on adding value rather than picking on the small things while editing a translation. I want to reinforce this idea now by explaining where the borderline between a major and a minor error is exactly. I believe that in the final analysis, a translation error—even though it may appear obvious or outrageous—is an error only if it causes a problem. It sometimes bothers me when people rush to judge a translation based on a few errors that don’t really cause any problems. Let’s look at the three basic error categories:

1st severity level: Errors that normally go unnoticed

These errors don’t matter at all because they don’t affect the meaning, and most end users of the translation won’t notice them anyway. These are spelling or punctuation errors, just to name a few. Unlike a professional editor, an average end user isn’t trained to notice this kind of issues. Or the user simply doesn’t know the underlying spelling or punctuation rule. For example, many people don’t realize that the Russian word “например” doesn’t require a comma after it when it’s a part of a bigger structure. This kind of errors are so common that I find it difficult to take them seriously. Unless, of course, a translator makes them all over the place rather than accidentally here and there.

2nd severity level: Harmless errors

This level includes things like minor omissions, inconsistency, or inaccuracy. They may cause the meaning to change or make it more difficult to read the translation, but don’t have any serious negative impact on the end user. Although the end user may need more time to figure out the meaning, that’s not a big deal for him/her. Oftentimes, with these errors, it’s even hard to tell whether a translator omitted something accidentally or for a reason.

This category also includes poor style unless the entire translation is written so badly that the user gets furious while reading it.

Example of inconsistency:

Pull the introducer back. Make sure the sheath has been withdrawn fully. (While the introducer and the sheath are one and the same thing.)

Example of omitting something present in the source text:

Unscrew the screws counter-clockwise. (A user can figure out the direction for himself/herself. In fact, even if the translation says “clockwise” instead of “counter-clockwise”, the user will still figure it out.)

Example of adding something not present in the source text:

Contact us via phone or email. (There’s no “or email” in the source, but it’s no big deal because the users still have the phone number to call.)

3rd severity level: Harmful errors

These errors change the meaning in a way that renders the text completely useless. I prefer to subcategorize them into two categories based on how important the text is.

Less important:

English source: Scan Dialog (a dialog used for scanning)

Russian translation: Сканировать диалоговое окно (To scan a dialog).

While this is definitely a bad mistranslation, its consequences may be limited. Even though the end user may have trouble using this function ща a program, he/she will still be able to use the remaining ones.

Very important:

English source: Never suspend the alarms before acknowledging them. (In an IFU of a life support device)

Russian translation: Приостанавливайте тревоги, прежде чем подтвердить их. (Suspend the alarms before acknowledging them.)

Now this is a critical error, which may cause a patient’s death under certain circumstances.

Another negative consequence with this kind of errors is lost profits or financial loss. For instance, a company may send a quote  in reply to an RFQ. But because of serious translation errors, the receiving company will dismiss it as ridiculous.


Please don’t get me wrong. Just because an error isn’t critical doesn’t mean that an editor shouldn’t address it while editing. What I suggest is that we should not give the small errors the attention and weight they don’t deserve. Don’t ditch the entire translation due to a few typos or inaccurate translations. Often, those are simply accidental, human errors, which an editor is paid to fix in the first place.

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About the Author

Roman Mironov
Roman Mironov
CEO & Founder

As the founder of Velior, Roman has had the privilege of being able to turn his passion for languages into a business. He has over 15 years of experience in the translation industry. Roman has helped dozens of clients increase sales by making their products appealing for speakers of other languages.