Volume 13, No. 1 
January 2009

  Nitaya Suksaeresup  Tipa Thep-Ackrapong


Front Page

Select one of the previous 46 issues.

Index 1997-2009

TJ Interactive: Translation Journal Blog

  Translator Profiles
On the Name of God, Jim Knopf, Passion, the Mind, and Being a Translator
by Jost Zetzsche

  The Profession
The Bottom Line
by Fire Ant & Worker Bee
Statement to the Profession
by Dr. Erik Camayd-Freixas

  Technical Translation
Recursos en línea relacionados con el ámbito marítimo y naval
M.™ Blanca Mayor Serrano, Ph.D.

  Financial Translation
La ironía en el discurso financiero y su traducción
José Ramón Calvo Ferrer

  Medical Translation
The Bellicose Character of Medical Prose
by Rafael A. Rivera, M.D., FACP

  Cultural Aspects of Translation
The Challenges of Translating "I" in Japanese Academic Texts
by Stephen Pihlaja

  Nuts and Bolts of Translation
English Phrasal Verbs in Bilingual English-Arabic Dictionaries
by Dr. Ali Yunis Aldahesh
Twelve Ways to Enhance Translation Quality
by Danilo Nogueira and Kelli Semolini
Der portugiesische persönliche Infinitiv und seine Übersetzungsmöglichkeiten
Katrin Herget, Holger Proschwitz

  Advertising Translation
Translating Publicity Texts in the Light of the Skopos Theory: Problems and Suggestions
by Wang Baorong

  Book Reviews
La evaluación en los estudios de traducción e interpretación por María-José Varela Salinas,
reseñada por Cristina Plaza Lara

His Majesty, The Interpreter: The Fascinating World of Simultaneous Translation by Ewandro Magalh„es Jr.
reviewed by Arlene M. Kelly

  Literary Translation
Reading and Translating Kate Chopin's The Awakening as a Non-Feminist Text
by Yi-ping Wu and Wen-chun Tsai

  Translator Education
How to Avoid Errors in Translation from English
by Nitaya Suksaeresup and Tipa Thep-Ackrapong

  Translators' Tools
Translators’ Emporium
Effective Terminology Management Using Computers
by Sanaa Benmessaoud

  Caught in the Web
Web Surfing for Fun and Profit
by Cathy Flick, Ph.D.
Translators’ On-Line Resources
by Gabe Bokor
Translators’ Best Websites
by Gabe Bokor

Letters to the Editor

Call for Papers and Editorial Policies
  Translation Journal

Translator Education

Lost in Translation:

How to Avoid Errors in Translation from English

by Nitaya Suksaeresup and Tipa Thep-Ackrapong


The major aim of the paper is to attempt an explanatory account for errors found in translating from English to Thai. The data are restricted to word and phrasal errors collected from students' translation, anecdotes, and DVD subtitles. From the analysis, the sources of errors can be divided into the translator's problematic reading process of the source text and wrong lexical interpretation. Suggestions to improve the translation quality are included. Classroom applications are also provided.


n the present era of globalization, translation plays a major role in conveying messages from one language to another. However, translation is not an easy task as we can witness many cases of wrong translations, some of which are humorous. For example:

Ladies may have a fit upstairs (a sign in a Hong Kong tailor shop)
Stop! Drive sideways! (Detour sign in Kyushu, Japan)
(Wederspahn, 1991, p. 1)

Errors in translation mostly result from the non-equivalence between the source and target languages (Baker, 1992, pp. 20-21). However, good translators with encyclopedic knowledge and linguistic knowledge of both the source and target languages know how to deal with them; therefore, errors can indicate the quality of a translation; moreover, they can reveal what is going on in the translator's thinking process (Seguinot, 1990, p 68). In looking into the translator's mind, we may be able to give an explanatory account of the source of an error, which will throw some light on how to address problems in translation and thus improve the translation quality.

Two major sources of errors have been discussed: the translators' poor reading skill and their misinterpretation of the English lexical meaning.
In this paper, the main aim is to account for sources of errors in translating from English to Thai. It is postulated that there are two major sources: the translator's erroneous reading of the English text and misinterpretation of English lexical meaning. The first one involves misunderstanding of the English text, while the second involves wrong propositional and expressive meanings. After that, suggestions to improve the translation quality are provided. Finally, classroom applications are discussed.

The data in this study have been collected from university students' assignments and from anecdotal errors as well as in Thai DVD subtitles. The analysis is restricted to the word and phrasal levels.

Sources of errors:

  1. The reading of the English text
  2. One of the major and foremost components in the translating process is the fact that the translator has to read the original and interpret it in the target language. A fledgling translator may make errors at this stage due to his/her weak reading process. Errors found at this stage can be divided into the following categories:

    1. Miscue

      Miscue is a term coined by Goodman (1969) referring to an incorrect guess made by a reader when reading a text. For example, the word program is read as performance; ready as reading, county as country and so forth. Usually beginner readers make a lot of miscue errors; however, when their reading improves, they tend to make fewer of this type of errors.

      In translation, some students with poor reading skills transfer the miscues into their translated text. For example, in an assignment, years ago, one of us was surprised by the fact that many students made the same error in translating the following.

      Original text: Small animals hop into paper bags looking for food.

      Back-translated text from Thai: Small animals hope to find food in paper bags.

      The error resulted from the students' miscue in reading hop as hope. To address this problem, teachers should have students read English texts aloud. Reading aloud makes it possible for the teacher to detect the student's miscues. However, the teacher should not expect any positive gains in the students' reading process immediately, since it takes time and patience to develop good reading skills. Probably, extensive reading will pay off in terms of better translation quality in months or years.

    2. The translator's wrong assumption of the background knowledge

      The following case shows how a translator's miscues and his/her strong assumption of the background knowledge can affect the translation.

      In the 1970s, the pace of communication was slower than today's. When the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced the movies nominated for awards, they sent in the movie titles to newspapers around the world. Many years later probably in the early 1980s, a hilarious anecdote appeared in a Thai newspaper recounting the translation of two movie titles: Kramer vs Kramer (1979) and The Deer Hunter (1978). In the first case, it was translated in Thai as Khmer fighting Khmer and in the second as Hunting a Derogatory Title Liar. Obviously, the translation was a far cry from its original meaning. Probably the translator made a miscue of the name Kramer as Khmer because he/she was influenced by the raging war in Cambodia (1975-1979) during that period of time. In the second translation, the deer was miscued as dear, a term of endearment often used by American GIs to Thai lovers during their furloughs during the Vietnam War. Probably, the translator assumed that the movie was about an American soldier in the Vietnam War hunting for a girlfriend, or someone termed as a dear. The movie was made in 1978, shortly after the end of the Vietnam War (1965-1975). Therefore, the translator may have been influenced by the war events in his/her translation.

      From the discussion, it is suggested that a competent translator should have an inquisitive mind constantly searching for encyclopedic knowledge (Hatim & Mason, 1990, pp 106-107) so that he/she can acquire appropriate background knowledge to interpret the source language text without incorring in embarrassing errors.

  3. English lexical meaning

    In English lexical meaning, errors can be divided into propositional meaning which is wrongly interpreted and expressive meanings which are translated as propositional meaning (Baker, 1992, pp. 12-13). Most of the data discussed below are taken from DVD subtitles translated from English into Thai.

    1. Errors in propositional meaning

      The propositional meaning refers to the relationship between a word and what it refers to or describes as conceived by the speakers as true or false (Baker, 1992, p. 13). Errors in this category can further be divided into the following:

      1.1 Wrong alternate meaning of a word

      Some fledging translators select a wrong alternate meaning of a word. For example, the word right can be translated as right as opposed to wrong and right as opposed to left. In the following example, the translator translates the word as opposed to left, but in fact, it should have been the other meaning.

      For example:

      1. Original text: I think that's not right.
      Back-translated text from Thai: I think that is not the right-hand side.

      In the next example, there are at least two possible ways to translate the word head One refers to the leader as suggested by the context, the other suggested by one of our American colleagues, a toilet. However, in the example it is translated as a part of the body.

      2. Original text: Where is the head? . . . I'm gonna go to the head.
      Back-translated text from Thai: Where is the head, a part of the body? I'm gonna go to the head, a part of the body.

      The above examples show the translator's problem in using the dictionary. Probably, he/she hurriedly selects the first definition of a word without considering the possibility of another alternate meaning which would better fit the context. To address the problem, translators should be trained in the use of dictionaries. However, the use of a dictionary alone is not recommended because it is boring. In fact, it should be done to aid the reading process. By this means, the translators will learn how to read and at the same time how to use a dictionary efficiently.

      1.2 Wrong part of speech

      In the following examples, a wrong part of speech is translated, which distorts the meaning of the translated text in Thai.


      1. Original text: I am fine!
      Back-translated text from Thai: I am a fine.

      Fine is translated as a noun; however, in this context, the adjective fine is required.

      In the next example, the adjective mean is translated as a verb. Therefore, the meaning is drastically different from the original.

      2. Original text: She is very mean to me.
      Back-translated text from Thai: She means a lot to me.

      In the following, the word Count as a title is translated as a verb.

      3. Original text: Count Dooku.
      Back-translated text from Thai: Calculate Dooku.

      The above examples manifest many problems in translation. First, the translators lack the appropriate background knowledge to interpret the original text. For example, the word Count before a name is known as a title, not a verb. Second, they have not developed enough linguistic awareness to account for problems in translation. A linguistic awareness is the sense that a translator feels there is something wrong with a text, and thus he/she revises the text to discover what has gone wrong with it. Linguistic awareness can be developed through extensive reading and writing. Therefore, it is recommended that Thai translators should be trained extensively in both reading and writing English texts.

    2. Errors in translating expressive meaning

      Another aspect of lexical meaning is expressive meaning. Baker (1992) defines expressive meaning as a word that cannot be evaluated as true or false because the word in question has to do with the speaker's feeling and experience (p.13). For example, the word dog in English has a good connotation because dogs in the English-speaking context are considered humans' loyal friends. In contrast, in Thai, the word dog is considered derogatory because they always fight among themselves and scavenge for food.

      Therefore, expressive meaning can pose many problems for translators, especially fledgling ones. In the following discussion, errors in this respect are further classified into wrong translation of idiomatic expressions and of terms of address.

      2.1 Translating idiomatic expressions after their propositional meaning

      English has a great number of idiomatic expressions. A translator who is not familiar with these expressions tend to take them for their propositional meanings.

      For example:

      1. Original text: Shut up, baby.
      Back-translated text from Thai: Close the door, baby.

      The phrase shut up is misinterpreted as close the door.

      2. Original text: The sports car is cool.
      Back-translated text from Thai: The sports car is temperature-wise cool.

      The word cool is literally translated.

      3. Original text: What are you up to?
      Back-translated text from Thai: How high have you been?

      What are you up to? is literally translated as a question how high a person has been.

      To address the problem of misinterpreting idiomatic expressions, again, the translators are recommended to read and write in English extensively. However, not all genres contain idiomatic expressions. Fiction such as novels, plays, TV series and movies usually has a lot of idioms. Entertainment such as songs and computer games also does. These genres certainly will familiarize the translators with a great variety of idiomatic expressions. However, idiomatic expressions are short-lived. For example, the slang word fresh, which is similar to the today's slang cool, was widely used in Hollywood movies in the 60's. However, the word is no longer known to today's young people in that meaning. Therefore, a competent translator has to constantly keep up with new idioms.

      2.2 Translating terms of address after their propositional meanings

      In some cases, terms of address are wrongly translated.

      For example:

      1. Original text: Come on, man.
      Back-translated text from Thai: Come here like a man.

      Actually, the word man is in the vocative case. Someone is calling someone else as man. However, in the text, man is translated as like a man.

      2. Original text: Good morning, honey.
      Back-translated text from Thai: Good morning, Ms Honey.

      The word honey is meant to be a term of endearment, but it is translated as a woman's name.

      One recommendation to address the above problem is similar to the one tackling the translation of idiomatic expressions. Translators should familiarize themselves with genres such as movies, plays, TV series, computer games, comics and others. Then they will develop linguistic awareness. When the translation does not sound right, the translator will revise it to detect what seems to be wrong and fix the error.

      So far, two major sources of errors have been discussed: the Thai translators' poor reading skill and their misinterpretation of the English lexical meaning. Poor reading skill entails miscues and misinterpretation of the English text background meaning. The lexical errors are further divided into propositional and expressive meaning errors. In the propositional errors, wrong alternate meaning of a word is translated, or a word is rendered as a wrong part of speech. Expressive meaning errors can be divided into wrong translations of idiomatic expressions and of terms of address.

Classroom applications

The following are some recommendations for a class of Thai students' translation.

  1. Encourage extensive reading aloud of English texts, which can help develop the students' reading skills and at the same time decrease the miscues.
  2. Encourage students to acquire encyclopedic knowledge so that they can form strong background knowledge to enhance their translating ability. Different genres such as novels, TV series, documentaries, songs, comics and academic articles are recommended for exposing them to a great variety of language use, which, in turn, will enable the students to interpret a text appropriately.
  3. Train students to use a dictionary while they read an English text. Caution them of the different meaning a word may have and of different parts of speech that may affect propositional meaning.
  4. Encourage students to read and write extensively so that they will develop linguistic awareness, which will trigger the students to constantly keep their translation in check.


Baker, M. (1992). In other words: A coursebook on translation. London and New York: Routledge

Goodman, K. S. (1969). Analysis of oral reading miscues: Applied psycholinguistics. Reading Research Quarterly, 5, 9-30.

Hatim, B. & Mason, I. (1990). Discourse and the translator. London and New York: Longman.

Seguinot, C. (1990). Interpreting errors in translation. Meta, 35, 68-73

Wederspahn, G.M. (1991). Don't get lost in the translation. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. 349808).