Interfering with Interference

As you can guess from the title, this post is about language interference, something very common in today’s fast paced translation projects.

Let’s start by defining the culprit…

Language interference (also known as language transfer, linguistic interference, etc.) is nothing but the influence of one language in another.

Such influence is not always negative, there are cases in which, whether consciously or unconsciously, it leads to a correct expression. But those are not the instances I want to refer to. I actually want to discuss those cases resulting in translation inaccuracies or incorrect uses of a language.

Sorry to disappoint some of you, but I am choosing to ignore the following:

  • Those numerous — and super funny — examples of poor quality Chinese-English translations that plague the web
  • Those well-known cases of computer-generated translation mistakes.

Generally speaking, these problems (yes, I said “problems”) are not the work of a real or at least a qualified translator, and some of them are so dramatically incorrect that they don’t even deserve to be mentioned here. They are, however, so much fun to talk about that I’d rather save them for another post.

Instead, I’d like to discuss the more subtle — and often — imperceptible occurrences of interference when translating from one language into another.

Now, language interference is not just a translation problem. It actually lives right outside our doors in everyday life. You can find it in the comments of an immigrant who does not fully master the local language, in the questions asked by tourists trying to speak a foreign language, in people’s emails to someone from another country, in kids’ words when trying to use their parents’ language, etc.

But this is a translation blog, and I never went further than Sociology 101, so I’ll stick to what we are concerned with.

As a profession, translation is probably more vulnerable to language interference than others because the nature of the job consists precisely in transferring information from one language to another.


Actor Ron Perlman plays Salvatore, a brilliant illustration of language interference, in the film The Name of the Rose. Image Credit:

The chances of incurring in it are also higher when the translator lives in the country where the language spoken is either the source language or the target language because daily use increases his/her vulnerability to such interference.

Like most other things, language interference comes in many shapes and colors and has several causes. I’d like to refer briefly to some of the most common — and easiest to prevent — causes for language interference in the United States and, obviously, involving the English language. I am sure that some of these can apply to other languages and regions, and you may also have examples of your own. Feel free to share them!

Poor knowledge of L1 or L2

When translating, a poor knowledge of either the source language or the target language is perhaps the first cause of interference. It is impossible, or at least harder, for you to translate something correctly if you do not fully understand the original message or if you are not quite familiar with the terms needed in the target language.

Plainly put, if you do not master both languages, you probably should not be a translator at all. But just like not every teacher is an educator and not every pop star is a musician, not every translator or interpreter is necessarily a linguist. Blame society for it!

In fact, most of the worst examples of language interference (those that make us all laugh) are the result of this lack of knowledge. And because ridicule already sounds like a fair punishment, let’s not spend more time talking about it.

Poor knowledge of the topic

Translators need to have certain knowledge about the field they are working on. Needless to say, the deeper, the better. And if such knowledge is missing or poor, the quality of the job suffers.

Something as simple as a different term can hinder communication. The equivalent used may be correct in another context or even acceptable in the same context. But if it is not the term used by professionals in the field, the translation is not as good.

And the only way around this issue is to research and learn as much as possible about the field. Do not limit yourself to one source or medium — read, watch, discuss, ask, any way is valid to gather information. And don’t be superficial, go further than just learning the terminology. When you learn about the subject, it will be easier to remember those terms.

Carelessness and tight deadlines

Few words are enough to the wise… so, this particular cause does not need much explanation.

When translating, and even more so when interpreting, your undivided attention will allow for a better result. We all know this is not always possible in a fast-paced work environment, but you should strive to stay focused and avoid rushing.

If rushed by inevitable external causes, try to let your translation “sit and rest” and get back to it after a while to look at it again. If possible, have a colleague proofread your work. A totally fresh pair of eyes is always a good thing.

Linguistic differences

Every language is different. In some cases, these differences are huge and clear. But in other cases, they are very subtle. Beware of the latter!

Those subtle differences between the source language and the target language are the ones responsible for a higher risk of interference. And paying attention helps but it’s not always enough. So, once again, do your homework and learn a bit more about each language.

Some colleges and universities offer comparative courses as part of their translation programs. Such courses focus precisely on the similarities and differences between both languages and, as it can be inferred from the name, they compare both languages to analyze how certain aspects coincide or differ.


Also called borrowed words or simply borrowings, these are the foreign terms we all use in most languages on a daily basis. Some are recognized and accepted but others are not. They may be used in everyday conversations but that does not mean they would be acceptable in every translation. So, there will be cases in which you may need to refrain from using these words and resort to the existing terms in your language.

To sum it up, here are some pieces of advice:

  1. Deeply study both languages, not just the foreign language but your own as well.
  2. Research and learn as much as possible about the subject matter.
  3. Be aware of the subtle similarities and differences between both languages.
  4. Avoid foreign words if you are not sure about their usage.
  5. Don’t rush while translating.
  6. Pay attention to what you are doing.

These simple steps will help you do a better job and avoid language interference. They are not the only ones, but it’s a good start. If you think of any other tips, please share them below. Thanks!


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