English translation not 5 star at Cuban resort?

February 18, 2008

Like a number of other fortunate Canadians, I managed a week-long winter escape recently at a beautiful resort in Cuba. It was outstanding. The five star resort my husband and I stayed at was magnificent. The weather was wonderful and the beach appeared almost computer generated in its perfection. Cuba is trying very hard to appeal to North American and European visitors as tourism is a staple industry in the country. The one area where the resort fell short was in its written English documentation and instructional brochures. There were several humourous typos and mistranslated instructions that made them unclear.

It made me wonder how important perfect translation is when travelling in a foreign country. After all, it is a Spanish speaking nation and the fact that virtually all resort staff spoke English, French and Italian left me constantly amazed. How much more should a traveller ask for?

I was able to figure out that “cuked ham” on the menu was “cooked ham” and that “dards” and “boke tours” (listed as “byke” elsewhere) listed on the activities roster really referred to “darts” and “bike tours”. Instructions for towel service were a little harder to decipher. “Beach towels are delivered in our Club Info. Compensation should be paid in case you lose your towels.” “Club Info.” was a bit of a misnomer as it was a towel stand near the pool. I also thought that I’d have to pay a deposit up front in case I didn’t return the towel but what they really meant was that if I didn’t return the towel, my room would be charged $15.

I overheard a few other tourists laughing at the translations on various occasions and it made me feel a bit defensive on behalf of our host country. They tried, and succeeded, on so many other levels to make the resort a luxury experience based on North American standards—cut them some slack.

It reminded me, however, of a news story I heard about the upcoming Beijing Olympics and how China is making every effort to ban Chinglish. China, of course, is legendary for poor English translation that often results in hilarious signage and instructions. Officials see Chinglish as an embarrassment at a time when the country wants to put its best face forward. It has gone as far as setting up Chinglish reporting hotlines in an effort to stamp out bad translations once and for all.

The bottom line is, no one wants to be ridiculed—no matter how good natured the ribbing is. In an age with few technological barriers, it should be easy to secure good translation and copywriting services regardless of language and location. It does leave the impression of “less then perfect” and in a very competitive tourism industry, that’s an edge you don’t want to lose.

What do you think? Should resorts and other services catering to visitors that don’t speak the local language be criticized for faulty translation and bad copywriting?

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14 Responses to “English translation not 5 star at Cuban resort?”

  1. messagecom Says:

    Great story Lynda. That server must have been giving you a “high five” in his imagination. I bet not many people would have come to the server’s defense like that. Nicely done.

  2. Lynda Gilchuk Says:

    Just had to share my story. Many years ago on vacation in the Bahamas, in the dining room of our resort, I witnessed someone making fun of the server and how he talked. The bully wasn’t even doing it behind his back but right to the servers face. He was making fun of the server’s “accent” while he was asking the server to bring him another bottle of “black tar” wine. It took a couple of tries before the server understood him. I decided to speak up and commented not only on his rudeness but also commented that as a Canadian I had more problems with his English than with the servers. I explained to him that it wasn’t black tar wine but Black Tower, and that I found his accent quite amusing. The server gave me the tinest nod and an almost smile and the people at the other table were relieved that the guy became quiet. When we travel in other countries we cant assume the rules are the same, but I would hope that safety issues are, in deed, translated correctly. But I’d always check. However, I did understand what you were saying, Deborah. I didn’t take it as a criticism but as an observation. I enjoy reading your blogs.

  3. eleanor USA Says:

    The Cuban people are wonderful and hard-working and deserve to be treated with respect. Who cares if the English translations at the hotels aren’t exactly correct??

    I’ve travelled all over the Caribbean and Mexico and seen the same thing, it doesn’ bother me at all.

    I live in the United States and I envy the Canadians and Europeans for being able to vacation in Cuba.

    How I wish we Americans could vacation there legally, it’s one of the most beautiful places on earth and those people need our ecomonic help. I know that most Americans feel the way I do, and many vacation in Cuba illegaly every year.

    When I was a child, it was legal for us to go to Cuba, the whole thing is SO stupid. We can travel to China and Russia, countries that don’t have the best human rights records, and we can even travel to Vietnam, where our military was slaughtered and tortured, but not Cuba.

    It’s ridiculous, you would think the US Government has better things to do.

  4. messagecom Says:

    Thanks for taking the time to comment Dodi.

    In no way did I intend my post to diminish the beauty of Cuba as a holiday destination. I’ve been twice and loved it each time.

    I am always astounded by how far the resort staff go to make guests comfortable and to accommodate the North American standard since, as you point out, this is not the standard of the local population. This is true for a number of tropical holiday destinations.

    My question was about the importance of good translation and signage. It sounds as though, for you, the issue is not very important in terms of your holiday experience.

    The resort I stayed at is one of about 400 owned by a multi-national company based in Spain. It has obviously made some decisions about the standards at this hotel. I intended my post to pose the question about why the standard of English language signage was not at the same level as the rest of the services at the resort.

    As you can see by the other comments, Cuba is not alone when it comes to issues of good translation and signage. It happens everywhere.

  5. Velda Says:

    I agree. Go find someone else to pick on and leave these wonderful people alone.

  6. Dodi Says:

    Our group of 6 arrived back from Cuba a week ago; first time there and I’d go back tomorrow if I could. Amazing country! Although our hotel was 4 star and had everything one could possibly ever want, but my personal desire was to see as much of the country as possible. Not the glamour of the resort but the real Cuba; the stuff that’s beyond the walls that protect vacationing snobs. And my wish came true. By sheer luck we were invited into the home of one of our servers from the hotel and we met his parents and family. We saw how they live, including the meager meal his mother had prepared for a family of 4. Unlike the food of plenty that we receive at the hotel buffets, their food is rationed, yet they politely invited us to stay for dinner to share this meager offering. Naturally, we refused but were overwhelmed by their graciousness. When I emptied my oversize carrying bag of the many extras I had brought with me to this country (as I was too concerned about having relinquish my creature comforts), I thought his mother would cry. 3 rolls of toilet paper, a large box of kleenex, 6 tubes of toothpaste, 4 toothbrushes, a multi-use screwdriver plus over $200 worth of first aid items for those just-in-case small injuries that our family may have incurred. And to think that they can’t even get aspirin or a lousy bandaid!!

    Perhaps you were not aware that this is a communist country. The government owns and controls almost everything. That being said, people have nothing to do with any type of signage. Should they be caught even discussing political issues, they are immediately jailed. The cows that you see all over the country? The people care for them but they are owned by the government. If caught butchering a government animal, it’s an automatic jail term.

    The roughness of this country is an absolute part of its charm. I’ve never met people who are more accommodating or who appreciate whatever kindness that is shown to them. What they have to endure on a daily basis is something none of us will ever know. If the correct translation issue is so important, either write a letter to Raul Castro (Fidel’s brother; he runs the country now) or go somewhere else for your 5-star holiday. These people don’t need or deserve your criticisms. Shame on you!

  7. messagecom Says:

    Thanks Grant. I suspect your hunch about “out of depth” translators is correct. Many people believe that if you speak both languages, you can translate. Translation is a tricky business–my understanding is that you need to be proficient in both languages AND have very solid writing skills.

  8. I too am a professional translator, working French into English in Quebec. I would simply add that you don’t have to travel to Cuba to see badly translated signs for tourists–there are all sorts of them in Quebec.

    Sometimes I wonder whether tourist establishments are deliberately trying to appear exotic with their broken English. After all, there is no shortage of bilingual people in Quebec. But I also suspect that the culprit is often a native English speaker who has been asked to translate something into English, but is completely out of his or her depth. Which goes to show the importance of proper training in translation.

  9. Yes, these translations can be humorous, but as you say, let’s cut the Cubans some slack, since they are going to the trouble of using English for our benefit. However, It’s not only “foreigners” who have trouble with English. A few years ago I took my kids to a little lake area run by the regional conservation area. This sign hung in the washroom: “Water not potable.”

    I wonder how many of the people visiting that day knew that this meant: DO NOT DRINK THE TAP WATER”!

  10. messagecom Says:

    Thanks for the great comments all! Very nice hear from so many professional translators that know more about this subject than I do.


  11. […] 18, 2008 by corinnemckay Here’s a post from the blog of Canadian communications consultant Deborah Zanke, dealing with poorly done […]

  12. As an certified translator (translating French into English in the U.S.), I generally have a good sense of humor about these types of translations as well as my own collection of quasi-English signs from around the world. In some cases it’s understandable that the person who prepared the sign either had no native speaker of the target language to run it by, or simply couldn’t afford the services of a professional. However, in the case of the kind of resort you describe, it leaves me with the impression that the business is either a) unwilling to pay for a professional translation or b) ignorant or unconcerned about the image that a sloppy translation conveys. Obviously a professional translation is the best option, and in the days of global commerce, it’s not that hard to find a reputable translation agency to take your business. However, if these resorts have lots of native English-speaking guests, why not at least have one of them proof the materials before they’re printed?

  13. I agree with you, nobody should be ridiculed for trying, and I have seen many bad translations in many countries, the US included.

    However, companies should be very careful when choosing a translation service. A poor translation conveys a negative perception of a product of service and, unfortunately, perception is reality.

  14. I agree with you, nobody deserves to be ridiculed, and I have seen bad translations in many countries, the US included. Companies should be very careful when choosing a translation service, because a bad translation conveys a negative perception of a product or service, and perception is reality.

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