Costly Translation Mistakes that Could Have Been Avoided
Legal translation services and certified translation services are often required when the stakes are high and translation accuracy is paramount. It may be one thing to make a translation blunder when you’re introducing a new friend to the family, but it’s quite another when millions of dollars are on the line, or when there is a potential for escalating a war. When it comes to translation it is not enough to simply know another language – you must understand cultural differences, context, and other subtle nuances that a non-trained translator may not be aware of. Let’s take a look at a number of translation blunders with major consequences that could have been avoided if picked up on by a certified translation expert.
1) Latin Bible Translation
St. Jerome is renowned for his translation of the Old Testament from Hebrew to Latin. His Latin translation became the foundation for dozens of subsequent translations throughout the centuries. Unfortunately, each of these translations contained one very crucial mistake. In the Bible, Moses meets God on top of Mount Sinai, where he is given the Ten Commandments.
When he descends from the mountain his head is described as being surrounded by “radiance” in which the Hebrew translation is “Karan.” However, St. Jerome confused “Karan” for “Keren” which means “horned” in Latin. Although it is implausible to think of any certified translation services operating in the third century, this example does highlight the potential impact of a translation mistake. From this error spawned countless sculptures and paintings of Moses with horns adorned atop his head.
2) Cold War Mistake
The cold war was a perilous time for the world. One mistake could quickly have set off a nuclear winter that would have had the potential to wipe out all life on the planet. At the apex of the Cold War, Nikita Khrushchev, the Soviet Premier, gave a speech that stated “we will outlast you” or “we will live to see you buried.” However, when translated from Russian to English, the afore-mentioned phrase was understood as “we will bury you.” Although you might expect the government of the USA to be using translators at least as skilled as medical translation or legal translation professionals, apparently this was not the case. As a result, tension between the U.S. and Russia was heightened. Thankfully, full scale war never broke out.
3) Valentine’s day mistake
In 1958, the famous Isetan department store in Tokyo, Japan held a Valentine’s day sale. Over the next three days they sold a grand total of three candy bars. The lack of chocolate sales is attributed to the fact that not many Japanese citizens were aware that Valentine’s day was a holiday in Western countries where lovers exchanged chocolates.
During the following February, Isetan once again promoted its chocolate, but clearly did not use properly certified translation providers. A translation mistake meant that Isetan’s advertising campaign communicated that the onus was on women to give men chocolates and not the other way around. This has been locked into the tradition ever since. Thankfully women receive their own gifts on White Day which occurs on March 14th, exactly one month after Valentine’s day!
4) Translation mistake almost leads to the downfall of a Japanese multinational company
Returning to Japan, we can find another example of poor translation in the case of Sharp Corp – a Japanese multinational business that designs and manufactures electronic products. In 2012, the company found they were losing market share to the other electronic powerhouses in the market. Thus, when they released their earnings report, the English translation read that their struggles were a “going concern” and there was “material doubt.” Due to a lack of proper scrutiny by a fully qualified accounting or legal translation specialist, they had used terminology that was very inadvisable for securing support from existing and potential shareholders. The language was far harsher in English than it was in Japanese and, as a result, investors went into a panic and began selling their shares. Sharp Corp’s stock price fell by 75% that year.
5) Embarrassing presidential speech
President Carter will always be remembered for the speech he gave in Poland in 1977, where a Russian interpreter was hired to interpret for the President in Polish. Unfortunately, the Russian interpreter was not very experienced in translating in Polish, and the President’s speech was marred with humiliating yet hilarious mistranslations.
Phrases such as “your desires for the future” were mistranslated as “your lusts for the future” and “when I left the United States” was mistranslated as “when I abandoned the United States.” The fact that the media in both countries had a field day with the misinterpretations only compounded the issue and made it that much more embarrassing. No doubt Presidents since that day have insisted on having better translators and on using properly certified translation professionals.
6) The very expensive rebranding mistake
Even huge multinational banks deal with translation mistakes from time to time. The Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation (HSBC), one of the largest banks in the world, made a major translation blunder in 2009 that cost them millions in rebranding costs. HSBC’s catchphrase “Assume Nothing” was translated in many locations around the world as “Do Nothing.” Clearly not the message they wanted to send. HSBC had to spend millions in the markets that were affected in an effort to rebrand. It is extremely unlikely that properly qualified financial and legal translation providers would have allowed such a mistake to happen.
7) An improper translation had terrible nuclear fallout
Without a doubt the Second World War was the most devastating war that mankind has ever seen. In 1945 the war was near its end and a proposal had been drafted with Japan’s proposed terms of surrender. When the proposal was sent to the Japanese government, the Japanese press asked how government officials would respond. In their response the government used the word “Mokusatsu” which has two meanings — “we’re ignoring them with contempt” or “no comment.” The members of the Japanese media were aware that the intended meaning was “no comment” due to the context.
However, American translators picked the more “hostile” rendition, and President Truman decided to use the atom bomb in response. Perhaps due to Japan’s years of isolationist foreign policy, there were few certified translators who could be relied on for accurate translations of mission-critical communications. No one knows what would have happened if this translation error had not occurred, but the situation was clearly intensified by this costly mistake.
8) A terrible medical mistake
18-year-old Willy Ramirez was rushed to a Florida hospital in a comatose state in 1980. At the hospital, Willy’s friends and family attempted to communicate to the medical staff what they believed was the issue. They used the word “intoxicado” which in Spanish makes reference to ingesting something that makes you sick. However, the medical staff at the hospital took the word “intoxicado” a bit too literally and treated Willy as if he was intoxicated. A lack of medical translation professionals meant a dire mistake was made in deciding on Willy’s treatment protocol.
Willy was treated for a drug overdose, meaning he was then admitted for monitoring for two days. The mistake was finally caught by a neurosurgeon who discovered that Willy was suffering from brain damage, and the patient was rushed into surgery. The damage had been done by that point and he was left in a quadriplegic state. In the resulting lawsuit he received a $71 million settlement.