A number of bilingual people have told me they would be translators, but they find my profession too boring. Of course, it may be that they never stood a chance of standing (and fighting) alongside me in the Halls of Translationgarde. It is of course plausible that they really would make decent translators, they just find certain other professions more entertaining. However, I suspect they have been missing out on some of the daily fun and games I discover in my line of work.

Translation is far from dull. Quite the contrary, I play a number of ‘games’ in my role as a freelance translator. Sure, they are not all games in the strictest sense, but they are certainly entertaining, nonetheless.

Almost every potentially frustrating situation can be turned into something amusing, or potentially even insightful. Perhaps you already play your own games? Either way, perhaps my little list will inspire you and make the next awkward task a little less painful.

When translating a badly written source text, I have been known to play:

1) Guess the native language

I gather this happens a lot more often to my from-English colleagues than it does to me. Still, it has happened a couple of times to me and I have had great fun guessing the native language by the mistakes. I can usually narrow it down to language family, but it can get harder when differentiating between related languages.

2) Guess the correct word from the typo/dodgy OCR

Have you had one of those situations where a typo or OCR is so bad, you are playing guess the correct word? For entertainment, I also like to ponder what highly inappropriate words may fit the context.

3) Guess the verb

Sometimes, in my source language (German), it is not just the non-natives who get to the end of a sentence and forget what verb they wanted to use. It happens through sloppy drafting, too. Sometimes the verb is wrong, other times the verb is just not there. This is probably the least fun game to play with a dodgy source text, but occasionally the wrong word can be amusing, and it’s of course always satisfying when the client confirms you guessed correctly. I feel I should get a point or something.

When proofreading a poor translation, I have been known to play:

1) Guess the native language

As above, except now it gets really interesting – you also have to find the weakest link. Sometimes it can be hard to tell the difference between a poor translator and a translator who is native in the source, not the target. Usually this can be identified through uncharacteristic correct translations of terminology that someone who is generally poor may have got wrong coupled with persistent basic grammatical errors that a native would rarely get wrong (i.e. the person may be native in the source). This is one of my favourite games!

2) Work out how they got from X to… x94+150*4?

This is always a source of wonderment. For example, when someone translates “for your child’s trust fund” as “fund your trusted child”, you might guess they have only half-understood the source text. Backtracking these thought processes can be great fun! But there are other examples which lead me to the next game…

3) Google Translate! True or false?

This game follows on from the games above. Sometimes, when trying to work out how a translator came upon their chosen term or phrase, I put a small, anonymised section into Google Translate. If it comes back identical to the translation, it’s a hit! Sometimes, I will find something that’s very close but not identical to Google Translate. I figure some translators are simply smartening up Google Translate, and not very well.

4) Spot the biggest lawsuit

Arguably, handing in pure Google Translate is a lawsuit in itself. But in a really, really bad legal or financial translation you may find a number of examples that, if left unchanged, could warrant a lawsuit. I had some great examples just last week! In an employee vehicle lease agreement, I noticed the translator hadn’t quite grasped the concept of “Selbstbeteiligung” (excess, literally, “the part you have to pay”). I thought I’d found a winner when I spotted something on the lines of, “If the employment contract is terminated early for any reason, then all costs of the lease must be paid until the end of the contract term.” Where it should have said excess, as in, the part to be paid by the employee if they wanted to lease a nice vehicle that was beyond the company budget, it now said all costs. Implying the cost of the entire lease. Ouch! BUT that was not all – later, when talking about insurance cover, the translator assured the employee that they would be covered for every minor incident, but not a massive catastrophe, i.e. “The maximum cover amount is 1,000 EUR”. In actual fact, the source had said, “Cover is unlimited, subject to an excess amount of 1,000 EUR”, i.e. you are covered for the big stuff, but the small stuff – that’s your problem! I think that one will remain top on my list for a while.

So, over to you:
What translator’s games do you play? Any of the above? Any more you’d like to share with us?

Enjoyed this post? Found it useful? Share away!

About the Author:

Rose Newell is a British-born, Berlin-based copywriter and translator specialising in high end and high tech. Rose works exclusively with direct clients, mostly located in Germany, Switzerland, and Austria. This blog is a labour of love for colleagues, not a sales funnel for paid membership groups, webinars, seminars, courses or coaching services. As one of those who has consistently spoken out against instagurus, readers can trust this blog will never be monetised. Truly successful translators have no need for the pittance generated by such activities.


  1. Victoria Silchenko (RUS-UKR-ENG-FR) 06/06/2014 at 11:39 am - Reply

    oh, ‘ve senn own misprints… my apologations dear colleagues, the slow script played me the real joke – eventually the PC has own lingvo-games? -)

  2. Victoria Silchenko (RUS-UKR-ENG-FR) 06/06/2014 at 11:35 am - Reply

    Dear Rose,
    so much enjoyed with your practical philosophy of translator’s games! indeed language pair plays its evident role, still most of your GAMES are very familar as, honestly, mea cupla, sometimes I have the same job-entertainments. And this one of mis-/wrong puctuation Valerij said, sometimes that creates just a faboulous effect when a badly written SOURCE trans-Googled into TARGET, a bit human-improved afterwards and again trans-Googled into NEW TARGET/FORMER SOURCE reaaches my eyes (as in-house translator) with immediate question “is it so in-/translable as they say?” whichever would the case still I discover many surprising phases falling out of the overall context and even getting extra to the common mental exercises a human being is capable for-))

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  4. […] What games do you play when translating a badly written source text? What about when proofreading a badly done translation? These are the games I play. Please share yours!  […]

  5. Kayla Language Tips 11/06/2013 at 7:48 pm - Reply

    Thank you very much for this very entertaining article!
    A nice break from studying translation 🙂

  6. […] What games do you play when translating a badly written source text? What about when proofreading a badly done translation? These are the games I play. Please share yours!  […]

  7. Samar 20/03/2013 at 12:10 pm - Reply

    I like to play the back translation, guess the verb and the typo games, my favorite is the back translation game.
    As for “spot a lawsuit”, it reminded me of a legal document which was translated from Spanish to English by 2 certified translators as least that I had to translate into Arabic. I played all sorts of games with this document which was related to payment of a mortgage. It contained bad grammer and numerous inconsistencies, the fatal one of which was related to the numbers of the surrounding plots of the morgaged place, their numbers were mentioned twice in the document, each time using different numbers.
    The games will never end!

    • Rose Newell 06/07/2013 at 9:46 am - Reply

      Sorry, missed your entertaining comment before! Very funny! I’ve also spotted serious errors in the source, like mixing up TEUR and EUR – in a report that has been approved by a leading auditor and submitted, so it can no longer be changed in the German. Meant I had to translate it correctly, but add a translator’s note to say what the original actually said.

  8. […] What games do you play when translating a badly written source text? What about when proofreading a badly done translation? These are the games I play. Please share yours!  […]

  9. EP 02/03/2013 at 6:22 pm - Reply

    Ouch. That “misunderstanding” about the “maximum cover amount is 1,000 EUR” really is good one. I mean bad one, of course. Details, details…

    • Rose Newell 03/03/2013 at 7:01 pm - Reply

      🙂 Yeah, quite a hilariously bad one. All is well that ends well – I got a new client who adores me. A Spanish agency willing to pay my rates, and promptly!

  10. Maggie Bailey 22/02/2013 at 4:27 pm - Reply

    Hi Rose, great blog! It’s funny that people say they would be translators but find it boring: I love doing translations, and I think it would be my dream job, but I have never been able to get any work in it! (or only the odd little bit here and there, rarely, not enough to make a living out of!) I know some people, like you, do make a career from it though, so I wonder what I have been doing wrong?! How did you get started in it, may I ask? If I knew that, maybe I could too.

    • Rose Newell 22/02/2013 at 7:28 pm - Reply

      Well, take a look at the series on my blog, “What makes a good, successful and happy translator”. Have a read of the various blogs and books on the subject. Good luck!

  11. Elena 20/02/2013 at 5:25 pm - Reply

    Hi Rose

    Great stuff!! I definitely had some fun when reading it :))
    Now I know that I can play while translating ))
    I had a lot of fun when translating texts written in English by non-native speakers. They either put the words in the sentence in a funny way, or “transfer” structures and words/phrases of their own language into English. It’s quite cool when I can recognize what they mean just because I know their native languege a little, but not what they wrote or said in English 🙂


    • Rose Newell 20/02/2013 at 6:24 pm - Reply

      Indeed! It doesn’t happen so much when translating from German, though.

      …Just a thought, but wouldn’t it be cool if we really earned points or achievements for certain difficult texts? On most games, understanding a text in English because you worked out the writer’s mother tongue would net you an achievement!

      • Elena 20/02/2013 at 6:34 pm - Reply

        Well, that’s a great idea! But honestly, I believe it’s only us translators who understand what we’re talking about here. Others will most probably say, “Whatever, you’re translator. It’s your job.” :)) I think so anyway. I’ve come across lots of cases when clients do not understand why prices depend on the type of the text, on the level of difficulty and so on 🙂

  12. Sara de Albornoz 20/02/2013 at 10:59 am - Reply

    Nice games indeed! I’ve played most of them…

  13. Denise 20/02/2013 at 4:42 am - Reply

    Hi Rose,
    I teach translation, and I like to play a slightly modified version of the “Google Translate” game. Some students know that Google translate is too well-known, so they prefer cheating with other automatic translation sites believing it would be harder to catch them. I used to spend more time playing that game but now, with http://www.translatordetector.com, it’s a pretty fast game.

    As for legal translations, the game I love to play is “Can you finish reading the sentence in one breath?”

    • Rose Newell 20/02/2013 at 7:07 am - Reply

      Haha. That’s a great one! I think German lawyers also play a similar game: “The two-page challenge” – where they try to stretch a sentence over two pages.

      Yes, I seem to remember hearing about homework being done using Google Translate when I did my degree. I seem to remember the tutor gave a little talk at some point, on the lines of “…I know some of you may think I won’t notice, but believe me, I do…” 🙂

      Thanks for reading!

  14. […] What games do you play when translating a badly written source text? What about when proofreading a badly done translation? These are the games I play. Please share yours!  […]

  15. Karen Sexton 19/02/2013 at 11:18 am - Reply

    Hi Rose, Interesting read! I don’t play guess the native language because I only work with one language pair, but one thing I like working out – particularly when I find really poor sentences in English – is how the author/translator structured a sentence in the source language to come up with a meaningless sentence in English. I am fascinated but how people structure their thoughts in different languages.

    • Rose Newell 20/02/2013 at 7:08 am - Reply

      Yeah, the “What the ?!” moment can be quite intriguing. Back-tracking… what did they mean, how did they get there? Glad you found the post interesting. 🙂

  16. Raphaël Toussaint 19/02/2013 at 8:38 am - Reply

    And don’t forget the always entertaining quest for which of the fuzzy matches from the TM has been copied but not modified according to the source differences!

    Very entertaining read, Rose! I’m sure I can come up with a few more, given a bit of thought and time…

    • Rose Newell 20/02/2013 at 7:09 am - Reply

      Urgh… I forget that one. I don’t tend to work with dodgy TMs, but oh yes, I remember that game….

  17. […] A number of bilingual people have told me they would be translators, but they find my profession too boring. Of course, it may be that they never stood a c  […]

  18. One of my favourites is wrong or missing punctuation.
    A comma can mean life or death, like in the Russian tsar’s telegram “Execute not possible show mercy”. There are many similar saying in English that illustrate the importance of punctuation, remember “Panda eats shoots and leaves“.

    As for “Google translate? True or false” try the Machine Translation detector (http://www.translatordetector.com/) – you probably know it, but nevertheless.

    Great post, Rose. Always a pleasure.

    • Rose Newell 18/02/2013 at 6:09 pm - Reply

      Oh, I may have seen that link before, but I’d long forgotten it! Oooh. Thanks for the link!

      And yes, guess the punctuation! That’s a fine game! Thanks for reading. 🙂

    • Elena 20/02/2013 at 6:35 pm - Reply

      Yeah, the Russian one is my favourite!! )) I still get surprised when a Russian doesn’t know it. After all, we all read it when we’re small 🙂

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