In financial translation, as elsewhere, making mistakes is human. It’s just that it often costs much more.
The work of a financial translator doesn’t allow for any errors. And yet … Not only an error, even in this area, is human, but more importantly it can cost you dearly. Just ask HSBC or Continental Illinois…
1. The punctuation mistake
We think that if there is an easy thing to translate from one language to another, it has to be numbers. Whether it’s a legal translation, a medical translation or, even more so, a financial translation, « 1 » is written « 1 » in English, in Spanish, in German, in French… However, it is not always so: in an English text, « 1,500 » means « one thousand five hundred », while in a text in German and in French it will correspond to a number a thousand times smaller… For numbers perhaps more than for anything else, punctuation is crucial: depending on the language, « one thousand » can be written « 1000 », « 1’000 », « 1 000 » or even « 1,000 ».
2. Confusion between values
So would it be enough to write the number in letters? This method has its followers but in addition to lengthening the text and making it less clear, it does present some problems: 1’000’000’000’000 is a trillion in the US, a billion in the UK, mille milliards in French (precisely in order to avoid confusion) and a millón de millones in Spanish…
3. The misinterpretation of numbers
When you make the effort to translate well or to report the numbers appropriately, you’ll still need to interpret the context correctly. The nuances are, in some cases, very important… In 2005, an article written by Chinese journalist Guan Xiangdong made a quick overview of various financial reports on the consequences of a possible appreciation of the Chinese currency. The author referred to some participants on the market that speculated on a rise of 1.26% over one month and 6.03% over the year. But the English translation stated that the Chinese government had decided to value its currency by 1.26% over a month and 6.03% over the year… leading to a movement of panic on the financial markets.
4. The mistranslation of a nuance
A relatively similar problem had occurred a decade before then. In 1994, the Commodity News Service published an article about the Continental Illinois bank about which rumors were reported that a Japanese bank had planned to take over the former because it was undergoing financial problems. In the Japanese translation, the word « rumor » becomes « announcement »: the Continental Illinois payables and customers rushed immediately to claim their dues. Therefore the authorities had to intervene and the State was forced to help the bank by giving it $ 8 billion in order to save it… from a bad translation.
5. An ambiguous message
This demonstrates that even the most powerful entities are not immune to translation mistakes. Take, for example, the case of HSBC and this marketing translation mistake: in 2009, the slogan in English of the HSBC bank was « Assume nothing ». A call to action, which in many countries will be (mis) translated as « Do nothing ». A few years later, the bank embarked on a comprehensive rebranding that cost it a whopping $ 10 million…
The moral of these stories: in order to avoid costly mistakes like the ones presented here, always use a reliable translation agency and specialized professional translators.
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