‘The right side makes a wall’. What can go wrong with machine translation?

The dangers of machine translation: don’t get caught offside!

“Translating football texts? Pfff, that’s easy, every player says the same things!” This kind of oversimplified dismissal of an unfamiliar subject is all too common, and the beautiful game – dubbed by the ex-Argentina international and would-be philosopher Jorge Valdano as “that most important of less important things” – is no different.

As with every sport, football has a language all of its own, packed with unique and unusual words and turns of phrase which shine a light on the personality of the commentator, writer or, in my case, the translator. So much is written and spoken about football, 24 hours a day and in pretty much every language, and with it staking a heavy claim to be the world’s most-followed sport – there are as many different ways of ‘seeing’ and ‘feeling’ the game as there are fans.

So, for a player, club or federation, looking to quickly translate a short post from Spanish to English, for example, in order to increase its impact on social media, what better way than using a free, machine-translation tool like Google Translate? I mean, if ‘gol’ is goal and ‘estadio’ is stadium, what can possibly go wrong?

Everything, absolutely everything. Phrases that could appear in any post or match report, such as “un centro al área” (a cross into the box), “hacer una pared” (play a one-two) or “lateral derecho” (right-back) are turned – without a second’s thought – by the all-powerful Silicon Valley machine into ‘a centre to the area’, ‘make a wall’ and ‘right side’…

A recent case of a major machine-translation malfunction occurred at the Sporting Gijon museum. Clearly deciding there wasn’t time or money to employ a specialist, real-life translator, the powers-that-be put their faith in the omnipresent Google Translate. Thus, as if by magic, the Sporting legends’ admirable qualities of “entrega” (dedication, determination) and “valor” (courage, bravery) were reduced to – and completely decontextualized as – ‘delivery’ and ‘value’.    

After a fan (@eibarsestaoX) spotted this crime against translation, took a quick pic and posted it to Twitter – it was only a matter of hours before worldwide mockery fell on those responsible. The painful lesson they learned is a potent reminder of the importance of putting your language services in the right hands.

A solid communications strategy is a key factor in getting your message across to those you wish to receive it. That includes calling upon experts who speak the particular ‘lingo’ of your field of activity and is where a specialist translation and proofreading team comes into their own.

Indeed, it is entirely possible to be a superb translator in the area of – to take an abstract example – astrophysics, and not know who is Lionel Messi. This despite the diminutive Argentinian’s weekly demonstrations of out-of-this-world ability.

Equally, entrusting a goal description, a coach’s post-match quotes or an email to another club to machine translation is akin to taking a blind leap into the unknown. Just ask the Ecuadorian player Bryan Cabezas, whose transfer to Independiente de Avellaneda fell through thanks to a helping hand from Google Translate, which changed his name to Bryan Heads.

Of course, nobody bothered to proofread the ‘translated’ document before sending it off because, well, what could possibly go wrong?

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