Amateurs playing among the pros?

With the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympic Games to be held in Brazil, the country has been investing tons of money and effort to attract tourists and, hopefully, be prepared to welcome a huge number of non-Portuguese speakers. Needless to say, translation has been a key element in reaching out to the foreign sports lovers and tourists in general.

Last year, a website aiming to market the 2014 World Cup to foreigners was published by Embratur, a government body created in 1966 specifically to foster tourism in the country. We could only expect it to provide top-notch content to foreigners, which should naturally include appropriate translation and marketing copy in English, right?

Well, the reality proved to be different.

The poor material posted by Embratur in 2012 is no longer available, but I still wanted to write about it because this sort of problem is very common. This issue has been present for ages all over the world and, unfortunately, will keep happening as long as people use lame procurement processes.

If you haven’t read my previous post about the Brazilian Federal Supreme Court’s “trilingual glossary,” I suggest you check it out, since that case has a couple of elements in common with Embratur’s endeavor: (1) both are great initiatives and (2) both failed at their main goal because a huge part of the message couldn’t get across due to awkward or overly literal translations and poor terminology work.

Now, where do they differ? Unlike the trilingual glossary, which was put together with the collaboration of amateurs (i.e., non-translators), the amateurish English translation of Embratur’s website was indeed prepared by a genuine translation agency in Brazil.

My goal here is not to comment on the numerous mistranslations found on that website or to look for mistakes in the new one. It’s not about which English words are the best equivalents for such and such, or how much of a foreign accent pervaded the text, or how many translation and terminology inconsistencies could be found throughout the copy…

I’d rather focus on what I believe to be the most important lesson we can learn from this mishap, by looking into the reason, the root of the problem, and answering this question: why in the world would a respectable government agency spend loads of public money on extremely poor language services?

In a great text on language services procurement, Nataly Kelly describes what the general pattern looks like–which I summarize below, focusing on what I find to be the main points:

When procuring language services, government bodies often rely on employees who are inexperienced in working with this type of service, but rather are typically in charge of buying commodities. As a result, these procurement officers tend to treat language services as a commodity and include in public tenders only the basic requirements, such as languages and price, but overlook essential details: “experience actually providing the services, understanding of quality issues, and solid relationships with vendors.” On top of that, these contracts frequently impose unrealistic timelines (and I must add this: huge work volume). Even with no prior experience delivering this type of service (remember: experience is rarely a requirement in these contracts), language service providers apply for these public tenders, seeing them as great opportunities. Lacking a good understanding of the market, these service providers tend to overlook real costs and bid low, hoping to win the contract. The lowest bidder wins the contract, and, as expected, the winner is one of those providers with little or no experience in the type of services requested and doesn’t understand all the costs involved. Now it’s time to get the work done… In order to meet the impracticable deadlines and stay within the nonsensical budget, the winner asks subcontractors, who are usually freelancers, to lower their rates and work more than they typically do.

The piteous results come as no surprise, and you can find all sorts of explanations in Rafa Lombardino’s latest article, Doing it right the first time around, Christos Floros’ Beware of the translation industry “bottom-feeders,” and three texts of my own: Common scenarios, Food for thought, and Controversial approach: “penalties” for low rates?.

To wrap up, I’d like to complement Nataly’s explanation by raising a few points:

  • I believe there are indeed experienced service providers who, unfortunately, don’t have “quality” high on their priority list. For these, delivering massive texts in any language combination, within ridiculous deadlines, and earning peanuts (and paying “peanut fragments” to freelancers) is part of their daily chores. They want more and more volume, and that’s how they make money.
  • Chopping up a huge text and assigning bits and pieces to ten, twenty, or thirty translators, and never carrying out proper harmonization and review work is another capital sin these service providers often commit.
  • In Brazil, due to some cultural anomaly, service providers most often “impose” a low rate on freelancers–take it or leave it. And there’s always someone who takes it. And guess what? These are either inexperienced professionals or those who play on the who-cares-about-quality team.
  • Another disturbing fact (common in Brazil and most likely elsewhere) is that many freelancers think so highly of themselves–or care so little about quality–that they translate from their mother tongue into several foreign languages. I’m not saying that is NOT acceptable, but the margin for error in this scenario is much, much higher. (I’ll need a whole new post to properly explore this matter.)

Unfortunately, it’s common to see translation agencies coming to Brazilian online forums to ask Portuguese native speakers for quotes like this one:


Again, a dangerous combination of tight deadlines, huge volumes, translations into several foreign languages, and bidding for “dream” government contracts…

All that said, what I believe translation clients should take from this short case study is what not to do when procuring language services. There are other ways that actually make sense. A fellow translator, Beatriz Figueiredo, has just published a blog post about another method of hiring translation services in Brazil, recently adopted by a few government agencies. I’m excited she has agreed to write a guest post soon.

A case of disgraceful incompetence

An interesting project that should have inspired admiration and pride was launched in Brazil in March 2012. The Brazilian Federal Supreme Court published an International Portal with a “trilingual glossary.” According to the portal, the project is designed for the international reader and seeks to present the Brazilian legal system to the international jurist community in a simplified way.

Great initiative, isn’t it? Well, I can tell you the Brazilian translator community isn’t at all happy about it. Unfortunately this online tool was launched despite its shamefully poor English and Spanish translation and terminology work. The mistakes are numerous and hideous, making the glossary not only practically useless, but also potentially dangerous.

The portal includes a brief description of how the glossary was prepared: “contou com a colaboração de vários servidores e estagiários poliglotas,” i.e., polyglot employees and interns have collaborated on the glossary. How nice of them!

Fellow translators have been contacting the Supreme Court and trying to make the institution realize the glossary cannot be kept online in its current state. They have also urged that this sort of task should be performed by professionals who have expertise in translation and terminology, i.e., translators and terminologists, not polyglot employees and interns. A standard response has been sent to them all (“thank you… your input will be used in our ongoing review of the glossary… yadda yadda yadda”), but no actual correction has been done so far.

Since we cannot predict how long the glossary will be kept as-is, I’ve saved a couple of screenshots to document the case (click to enlarge):


There are countless horrendous mistakes (and not limited to translation), but my goal is not to write a review of the actual content. My intent is to highlight some of the possible causes and consequences of this project gone awry.

Why are these mistakes so serious? Portals and websites like this one, created and endorsed by a supposedly respectable government body, a high authority in the field, are often regarded by translators, students, and the whole international community as trustworthy references. They should be reliable sources of terminology and information in general. They must, therefore, have top quality material, carefully prepared by a team of highly qualified translators and terminologists and, hopefully, validated by experienced professionals in the legal field; and definitely not done by polyglot employees and interns. I don’t even want to imagine the gaffes, mistranslations, miscommunications, lawsuits—to say the least—that may result from this amateur attempt…

The least they could do now is to (1) take down the whole glossary, (2) post a public apology on the website recognizing the serious flaws, and (3) have the whole job redone by translation and terminology professionals who specialize in the legal field.

Why did I decide to bring this case to my readers’ attention, after all? It’s a common myth that being bilingual or polyglot is enough for anyone to perform a translation task successfully. The reality is far, far different. I know a huge number of people who are great at speaking their second or third language, but aren’t able to translate a line without making it sound rough, awkward, or too literal. Note that I’m not even referring to highly specialized terminology, which requires a whole set of different skills. Knowing how to carry out proper terminology research is a must, but not something everyone can do. Even within the translation community, you’ll often find a professional who specializes in, say, medical translation, and won’t take on even the shortest text on oil & gas.

I believe a great many failures in translation projects often result from the translation buyers’ lack of information about our field and its difficulties. The main goal in this blog is to make a difference by raising awareness on a series of issues that are little recognized by non-translators or even unknown to many of them. I prefer to think the Supreme Court was just naïve when setting up this project. Let’s hope the people in charge of this glossary learn from their mistakes and make amends. Of course hiring translation and terminology experts will cost a lot more than simply using employees and interns. And having the work redone will probably go over budget. But shouldn’t a proper feasibility study have been carried out in the first place?

To wrap up, check out the collage of images below, which has become popular on many social media websites. I think no further explanations are necessary.