Translation is an after-thought for most businesses.
We get it. Paying for slick company mousepads and employee trips to Disneyworld are a priority, while communicating with customers takes a backseat.
Rather than get preachy about how bad translation will ruin your business, here are some amusing, tragic and interesting examples of when it goes wrong.
Olympic Chefs Use Google translate to Order 1,500 Eggs, End up with 15,000
Is cholesterol a performance enhancer?
Norway’s Olympic team chefs at the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang might have hoped so when they accidentally ordered 15,000 of them. After using Google Translate to order their groceries at a local supermarket, a truckload of never-ending eggs arrived.
Fortunately, they were better at math than they were at translation and figured out that they had ordered too many. The grocery store was kind enough to take the rest back as they were wondering if eggs were the only thing Norwegians eat.
NPR Tries to Tweet Something Inspirational, Says Something Horrible Instead
2018 was a great year for women entering politics, unfortunately, it was a horrible one for translation.
NPR tweeted that 2018 was the “year of the woman” in both Spanish and English. However, they forgot the ever-important tilde symbol (~) over the ‘n’, writing instead “el ano de la mujer”.
NPR must have gained some interesting new readers after that.
Danish Healthcare Workers Legally Obligated to Use State Approved Interpreters, End up Giving Patient Diarrhea
There are people from 200 countries in Denmark. Most of them are in trouble if they need help from the government. Denmark spends 305 million Kroner (36 million USD) on interpreters a year without a strict screening procedure. They rely on government employees such as nurses to decide whether they are competent. This recipe for disaster led to one patient being prescribed olive oil and gaining a serious case of the “backdoor trots”.
Walmart Canada Tries to Sell Swimsuits, Body Shames Instead
Et tu Walmart?
All two people who go to Walmart in Canada to buy swimwear are in store for some judgement.
One of their third-party ads for plus-sized floral print bathing suits stated that it was the “best choice for fat girls to spend hot summer.”
The most unbelievable part is that they have a summer in Canada.
Brexit Adds Poor Translation to its List of Woes
If you can’t spell the name of the language you translate properly, you might want to reevaluate your career choice.
A white paper regarding the Brexit deal in 27 E.U. languages was riddled with translation errors. Some notable ones were the Polish and Estonian versions misspelling the names of their respective countries. Also, the French version wrote “principled Brexit” as “un Brexit vertueux”, which implies that the UK’s departure from the E.U. is virtuous or morally correct.
Maybe the British need the E.U. more than they think.
Attempt to Collect Parking Fees in Welsh County Backfires due to Translation Errors
OK idea, poor execution.
The Welsh have battled to preserve their language for centuries. Oddly enough, their biggest threat was not the British Empire, but government incompetence.
Wrexham Council attempted to introduce a £1 daily parking fee at three country parks to increase revenue for upkeep. Unfortunately, they forgot to hire a competent translator for their signs. A vigilant Samaritan underlined the errors in red and wrote “ofnadwy” underneath, which translates to “awful” in perfect Welsh.
The Welsh haven’t returned fire this deadly since they invented the longbow.
President Carter’s Interpreter has Rudimentary Knowledge of Polish, Entertains Two Countries
Jimmy Carter seldom got the respect he deserved.
Maybe if he had the right interpreter it would have been different.
On a visit to Poland, President Carter was assigned a Russian interpreter who was not exactly well-versed in Polish. He misinterpreted phrases like “when I left the United States” to “when I abandoned the United States”, and “your desires for the future” to “your lusts for the future”.
Needless to say, President Carter became a hit with the ladies there.
Nikita Kruschev is Misinterpreted as Threatening, Really is Just Menacing
Nikita Kruschev was a not a guy you’d want to cross, especially at the height of the cold war.
His bombastic persona influenced how some of his words were interpreted. An impromptu exchange, known as the “Kitchen Debate”, with then Vice President Richard Nixon was communicated in English as “we will bury you”. This was viewed as a literal threat of nuclear attack, which escalated tensions even further between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R.
In reality he meant something more like, “we will live to see you buried”. Which pretty much means, you will die, but by your own incompetence.
See, isn’t that much better now?
HSBC Spends 10 Million Dollars on a Translation Error
HSBC is one of the largest financial institutions in the world. They are not, however, immune to mistranslation. After spending presumably millions to come up with “Assume Nothing” as a slogan, it was mistranslated as “Do Nothing” in multiple countries.
They then had to spend another 10 million dollars to rebrand, which they probably found between their couch cushions.
Minor Error Causes Global Turmoil
Warren Buffet once said he goes to Wall Street to watch people make mistakes.
Maybe he should have gone to the headquarters of China News Service instead. An article by reporter Guan Xiangdong made some casual and speculative remarks about financial reports, but the English translation sounded much more literal.
This led to a panic in the global foreign exchange market and a subsequent plunge in the value of the dollar.
Which leads one to wonder if the translator was trading Forex.
Biblical Translation Gets One Word Wrong, Gives us Some Very Cool Statues
St. Jerome is the literal patron saint of translators, but even he needed a proofreader.
Ever the overachiever, he studied Hebrew so he could translate the Old Testament into Latin. However, he misread a critical word describing what was on Moses’ head when he descended from Mount Sinai. He mistook “karan”, which means “radiance”, for “keren”, which means “horned”. As luck would have it, his version became the basis of hundreds of translations for centuries.
Fortunately, we were gifted some epic artwork featuring a horned Moses.
Mistranslation Gives Japan Two Valentines Days
Valentines Day is probably one of the most loved and reviled holidays in the world. Started in mid-February to Christianize a Pagan Roman festival and moved to commemorate an execution somehow, it is a celebration of love and Hallmark’s best day after Christmas.
In 1968, Japanese chocolate companies started mimicking western holidays and the companies that were making a killing because of them.
Unfortunately for Japanese women, there was a mistranslation along the way that made it obligatory for women to give chocolates to men. Not to be outdone, a follow-up “White Day” was invented for men to reciprocate. Korea took it one step further (as they are known to do) with “Black Day” for single people to eat Jjajangmyun (짜장면), a type of black bean noodle dish, and lament their crippling loneliness.
Even to this day, men and women all over East Asia can thank bad translation for having to deal with two sham holidays instead of one.
Italian Astronomer Gives Birth to Martians
Italian astronomer Giovanni Virginio Schiaparelli loved looking at Mars. So much so that he avoided alcohol and caffeine to better focus on it for hours. His observations were so detailed that they were used until the dawn of the space probe era.
He wrote of dark and light areas on Mars as “continents” and “seas” for lack of a better term. The light areas snaking through the continents were described as “canali” or channels, which sound an awful lot like “canals” in English. This allowed people’s imaginations to run wild with speculation about canals created by life forms on Mars.
Thanks to him, Tom Cruise could add “martians” to the list of things he ran from in movies.
Mistranslation Leads to Dramatic Drop in Productivity
Street Fighter 2 was a staple for kids growing up in the 90s. It was even cooler when a mistranslation led to the birth of a secret character.
In the game, Ryu says, “if you cannot overcome the Rising Dragon Punch, you cannot win!”, in Japanese. The translator was evidently not a fan of the game and left the phrase “Rising Dragon Punch”, which is the name of a move, as “Sheng Long”. This was misinterpreted as the name of a secret character by dateless nerds around the world.
Gamers then began to waste even more of their time trying to find this secret character. A gaming magazine went so far as to publish fake instructions with a doctored screenshot of Sheng Long on April Fools Day.
This wasn’t revealed to be a hoax until 8 months later, which still didn’t stop me from spending my lunch money at the arcade.
Two Versions of a Treaty are Signed, Centuries of Discord Ensue
The Maori during the British Colonial period rank up there with the Zulus on the list of people you shouldn’t mess with. However, even they were not powerful enough to overcome inconsistent translation.
At the time, the Maori wanted the British to keep their citizens in line, who were marauding around the countryside, while the British wanted to expand their territory. The Treaty of Waitani was created to somehow make both sides happy. Unfortunately, they signed two different documents with one favoring the British and one favoring the Maori. To this day the details of the treaty are being worked out.
This is why we can’t get along.
Another Bad Translation, Another Drop in Stock Price
Shigeru Miyamoto is considered to be the “father of gaming” at Nintendo after having created iconic characters such as Mario.
Back in 2011, he was in dire need of a vacation.
He started going around the office saying he was going to retire. For people working at Nintendo, it was just a normal Tuesday as he is known for his sense of humor. Unfortunately, investors weren’t laughing when they caught wind of this and began to dump Nintendo stock in fear that he was leaving. In actuality, he was just blowing off some steam and was not leaving the industry.
Chalk this one up more to rumor and people being unable to take a joke.
Interpreter Gets One Word Wrong, Costs State 71 Million Dollars
Translation errors aren’t always a laughing matter. They can cause international incidents or even bodily harm.
This was the case when a comatose Willie Ramirez was admitted to a Florida hospital in 1980. His family attempted to explain the situation in Spanish using the term “intoxicado”, meaning poisoned, which sounds like intoxicated to English speakers with a weak grasp of Spanish. The doctor proceeded to treat him as such when he was actually suffering from an intracerebral hemorrhage. By the time they realized what was wrong, he had lost the use of his limbs. The family sued and was awarded 71 million dollars in damages.
Incorrect Translation Leads to 12 Deaths
Chemotherapy is no picnic, especially when you get 20 percent more than necessary.
The trouble began when radiation machines at a hospital in France were upgraded to American ones with English instruction manuals. This led to 450 patients over the course of 4 years receiving 20% more radiation than necessary.
The radiologist, Joshua Anah, only made things worse by doubling down and denying any wrongdoing.
Of the 450 patients that were overexposed, 12 died as a result, while the majority suffered health complications.
As a result, the two doctors in charge were sentenced to 4 years in prison, fined 20,000 euros and banned for life from practicing medicine. Anah was sentenced to 3 years in prison, fined 10,000 euros and banned for only 5 years from practicing radiology.
Mistranslation gets America Involved in a Quagmire
Continuing on with the tragic side of bad translation, we take you to 1964 when U.S. naval ships were patrolling the Gulf of Tonkin. The U.S. government received mistranslated reports of the North Vietnamese attacking its ships twice before it decided to enter the Vietnam War. The original report only mentioned one attack, since a second one didn’t happen. This didn’t stop the N.S.A. from destroying the original document and insisting that the false report was true.
That was the last time the N.S.A. ever overstepped its boundaries.
Nokia Fails to Check the Meaning of Name in Other Countries
Branding is never easy as evidenced by HSBC above.
It’s even more difficult when you name your product after the world’s oldest profession.
Nokia was on top of the world before Apple and Samsung came along and released their smartphones. In an attempt to catch up, they rebranded one of their phones as “Lumina”, which is Spanish for a “lady of the night”.
Fortunately for them, the Spanish have a sense of humor and news of their phone spread like wildfire.
Chinese Pepsi Brings you Back from the Dead
This one was neither confirmed nor refuted, so we’ll include it anyhow.
Chinese and English translation is one of the trickier language pairs as evidenced by the baffling translations seen on both ends.
What was intended to mean, “Come alive with Pepsi”, came out to mean, “Pepsi brings your dead ancestors back to life” in Chinese.
Needless to say, Coca-cola is still number one in China.