The power of a word: Tesla's translation tweak highlights the need for accurate translation

August 17, 2016
The power of a word: Tesla's translation tweak highlights the need for accurate translation

Tesla is known for being the first company to produce the a fully electric sports car, the Tesla Roadster. The company has since gone on to produce a luxury sedan and other models (all fully electric) in addition to its business producing battery products and electric vehicle powertrain components. But this week it wasn’t Tesla’s commitment to the environment that caused the US firm to hit the headlines, but the Chinese translation of its Model X crossover car. 

Driver-assistance versus self-driving

Tesla’s autopilot feature has come under scrutiny in recent months, after a fatal crash in the US in May. Tesla reported that it was the first known fatality in over 130 million miles of the autopilot system’s use, but the incident nonetheless left many spooked as to the reliability of self-driving technology. 

Now, a minor incident in China has caused the company to re-examine the way in which they refer to the autopilot system. Beijing resident Luo Zhen had engaged his autopilot and had neither hands on the wheel nor eyes on the road when his Tesla Model S side-swiped a parked car on 2 August 2016. 

Lost in translation

Luo Zhen’s accident has led Tesla to amend the translation of the way that it markets its electric cars’ autopilot system in China. The company’s website now refers to the feature as a driver-assistance system, rather than a self-driving system, with Beijing-based spokesman Gary Tao commenting: 

“We hope to clarify that it is a driving-assisting function and hope people can use it in a correct way.”

Thus the Chinese word “自动驾驶,” which means both autopilot and self-driving, has become “自动辅助驾驶,” which means automatic driver assistance. Tesla have also removed the use of the word “autopilot” in English from the site. 

The power of a word

Luo’s crash was the first reported autopilot car accident in China, resulting in international interest. China has directed its car manufacturers to suspend road testing of self-driving cars until the country has policies in place in relation to the use of such technology. 

The attention given to the crash and Tesla’s resulting website change goes to show the power of a word when it comes to translation services. Clearly a self-driving system and a driver-assistance system are two very different things. Taking their literal meaning, the first is a system that drives the vehicle itself, while the second is a system that supports the vehicle’s driver to do so. The minor linguistic tweak has made a big difference to the way in which Tesla’s autopilot is marketed to Chinese buyers. 

Indeed, Luo Zhen’s comments on his accident support the need for the change. Luo told Reuters that he was of the understanding that the autopilot feature was for self-driving, which didn’t require him to keep his hands on the wheel or to stay alert to the vehicle’s progress. He had not been aware that the autopilot function was for assisted driving. Several other Chinese Tesla owners are reported to have complained to Reuters that this was also their understanding of the autopilot feature. 

Lessons learned

Thankfully, nobody was injured in the Beijing incident and Luo Zhen’s car suffered only minor damage. However, the accident goes to show the importance of accurate translation. Even a minor change in meaning can impact on the overall result – each word must be chosen with absolute attention to detail so that the translated text perfectly reflects the original. It’s something that translation companies understand well, particularly where the target language has no direct equivalent word and thus the meaning must be translated rather than the word itself. 

Final thoughts

What other instances of translation tweaks like this have you seen recently? How have they made a difference to the final document? Share your thoughts via the comments. 

By Ofer Tirosh

Ofer Tirosh is the founder and CEO of Tomedes, a language technology and translation company that supports business growth through a range of innovative localization strategies. He has been helping companies reach their global goals since 2007.



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