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A cautionary taal - translation lessons from SA's interpreting failures

Consider again the extraordinary achievements of Thamsanqa Dyantyi, the world's worst sign-language interpreter.
This man bluffed his way onto a global stage where celebrities and world leaders paid their last respects to the world's most revered leader, Nelson Mandela. Seen by billions, Dyantyi stood barely a metre away from the President of the US and signed such rubbish with such aplomb that he had almost all of us fooled.

Now skip forward a few months to another high-profile South African event, the Oscar Pistorius trial. This time, interpreters of Afrikaans testimony stunned audiences with errors so basic that, once again, interpreters got more headlines than service delivery protests or youth leaders.

It could happen anywhere, right? Perhaps, but the more serious question is how to stop it from happening again - specifically in translation projects, which have enough parallels with interpreting to warrant paying close attention to such cautionary tales.

Did anyone check? Did anyone test?

The central issue is skill and experience. Unfortunately, there are many ways in which a translation project can fall down on this seemingly simple requirement, but in the case of both Dyantyi and the Pistorius case, the interpreter lacked the basic skills for the job.

In both cases, furthermore, it was really the fault of their employers. Who checked Dyantyi's credentials? Why didn't anybody prepare the court interpreters on terms that could potentially make it into testimony?

This applies in translation as well. Translators should be given an entry test on joining a translation service, and regular spot-checks must be done of their outputs.

In the case of Dyantyi, improper appointment procedures have been alleged. We may never know whether he was a connected individual whose skills were not considered overly important until he was burnt, but we know this: neither translation nor interpreting jobs can afford the fallout of nepotism or job favours.

Incompetence can have serious consequences

As with interpreters, professional translators' incompetence can have serious consequences - if not a guilty verdict then perhaps a high-profile marketing blooper. It is not enough to rope in anyone who speaks the language or has used a dictionary before. The skills of a translator, like those of an interpreter, are highly specific to the trade, and it's best to employ professionals. Specifically, translators must produce work that is technically accurate (domain expertise), correct (good grammar and spelling), and reads as it was written in the translated language rather than like a translation.

Increasingly, subject matter expertise is preferred in addition to pure translation excellence. In the case of a court interpreter, the requirement may be as basic as being briefed on the concepts likely to be covered during the course of the trial. On the other end of the scale, United Nations interpreters possess a high level of on-the-fly interpretation and translation expertise as well as vertical industry knowledge. For instance, interpreting agricultural trade negotiations demand detailed knowledge of farming concepts.

Technology doesn't make translators better at their job

Translators who have the luxury of volume work (due to their quality output) can afford to become more specialised. But there is space for specialists as well as generalists, and both must understand their professional obligations in that respect. A professional translator will concede when he or she is not comfortable with a technical or specialised field, while specialists must remain current with developments in their field and the language of that field.

Interpreting needs bodies, so courtrooms don't have the luxury of insisting on certificates. In translation, it is possible to err to the other extreme. In the search for professionalism, it is tempting to give preference to a linguistic or translation certificate, but a certificate is no guarantee. Without constant updating, it is only good for wallpaper.

Technology plays a very scant role in interpreting, but can be of enormous help in boosting translation efficiency (with automation of certain tasks) and consistency (with 'translation memory' databases). Yet it does not make translators better at their job, just as a spellchecker doesn't make writers better at theirs. Typos still get through (and to be frank, typos are merely the tip of the iceberg).

Ultimately, a good translator, like a good interpreter, must be skilled. Make sure your translation service has suitable credentials, and that the output of its translation team is monitored.


Rubric Inc (Twitter: @rubricinc) is a global language service provider (LSP) that aims to help companies speak directly to the hearts of their customers. The company was founded in 1994 and its mission is to deliver high-quality translation and localisation services that are customised to specific clients and industries. It leverages automation to streamline processes, providing the flexibility, on-demand scalability and agile responsiveness to guarantee success. Rubric's specialises in document translation, DTP of translated content and localisation of software and websites. These services are delivered in 103 languages.

Rubric's headquarters are in Edinburgh with offices in San Jose (CA), Danbury (CT) and Cape Town (SA). For more information, please visit:

About Françoise Henderson

Françoise Henderson, Chief Executive Officer, is a the co-founder of Rubric. She oversees Worldwide Production and is responsible for localisation methodology and human resources. Françoise is an adviser of the non-profit organisation Translators without Borders - US, Inc.