Most Common Translation Mistakes and How to Avoid Them

By Atlas LS

Many mistakes in translating one language to another boil down to failing to appreciate the differences between the source language and the target language. A classic example would be retaining the adjective-first order in English as a source language when translating into Spanish as a target language.

translation flags

Word Order

In the Spanish language, the adjective comes after the noun, unlike in English. For instance, the English term “big dog” would be rendered as “perro grande,” where perro meant dog and grande meant big. You’ll notice in the above translation that the adjective grande comes after the Spanish word for dog, perro. In English, the adjective comes before the noun as a rule of thumb.


English as a source language for Spanish as a target language serves up another example of possible problems that translators can run into if they’re not careful. In Spanish, the question marks and exclamation marks are inverted, which may look strange or simply wrong to American eyes. To make things even more confusing for English readers unfamiliar with Spanish, the inverted question mark or exclamation will invariable come at the beginning of the sentence. A “normal” question mark will be at the end of both the source and target language when going from English to Spanish or vice versa.

Sentence Length

Sentence length can vary when going from a complicated language to a more straightforward one. Sentence length can also vary as a function of a particularly hard-to-translate idiom. As an example, one language might have a single word that perfectly captures a particular concept, which proves extremely hard to quickly summarize in the target language because of nuances only present in the source language. Certain Inuit peoples may have one word for a particular kind of snowfall, which will take many more words to summarize in English, for instance.


Retaining the same formatting when translating dates, names, and currencies from a source language to a target language is another pitfall that amateur translators may fall into. As an example of this mistake in action, let’s pretend that the source language is a European one and the target language is American English. In America, the date is listed in the following order: day, month, and year. In Europe, the order of month and day is reversed in this tripartite sequence.

The failure to translate the day-month order properly could have disastrous consequences in an important context, like conference translation services. Seemingly a small detail, time and date can be critical for allowing everyone who sees the translation to make the appropriate travel arrangements to meet somewhere on a particular day. If the day and month get mixed up, then one group might defer to one set of cultural assumptions, and another group might defer to another set of cultural assumptions about the sequence of day and month.

Appreciating the needs of the client and nuances of the source language and target language is critical to achieving a translation that sidesteps confusion and ambiguity.