Tesla autopilot translation: the devil is in the details

Cars for me have always been about getting myself and my passengers safely from Point A to Point B. When my young son fell in love with Teslas, I found myself agreeing to chaperone play-dates to the Tesla showroom at our local mall—and gradually falling in love with the car, myself. With the much more affordable Model 3 now in production, we joined hundreds of thousands of people and put down a deposit.

What does this have to do with translation, you wonder?

The first auto-pilot Tesla crash has been reported in China, on a Beijing commuter highway, after the Tesla veered into a parked car. Though both cars were damaged, no one was injured.

Why did this happen? Tesla’s website translates the autopilot function as “自动驾驶”, which can be understood as both “autopilot” and “self-driving”. Thinking the car was truly self-driving, the driver took his eyes off the road and hands off the wheel—despite Tesla’s recommendations to the contrary. The company has since modified its Chinese website language to make clear that it is not a self-driving system, but rather a driver-assisted system.

Reuter’s article noted:

“At Tesla we are continuously making improvements, including to translations,” a Tesla spokeswoman said on Sunday in an emailed statement.

Translation is part art, part science. Even with professional translation, there’s the potential for a variety of interpretations. Being willing to make continuous improvements based on feedback from your users is crucial to ensuring the best possible outcome.

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