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Translation mistakes and its effects

Updated: Nov 23, 2020

Words and sentences can be interpreted in different way, and when translating something it is especially important that the meaning is conveyed correctly. Today we will look at some translations that got it wrong.

Moses (Michelangelo)

Saint Jerome and the horned Moses

One of the earliest, and probably most historical translations error is a mistake in the Vulgate Bible (read more about the Bible and Saint Jerome here). When translating the ten commandments, Jerome used the Latin cornuta (horned) for the Hebrew karan. A more correct translation would have been “shining” or “radiant”. None the less, people took it literally, and images of a horned Moses were frequently seen in the Medieval and Renaissance Art.

Nikita Khrushchev

Cold war Confusion

At the height of the Cold War, Nikita Khrushchev told a group of Western diplomats, “Мы вас похороним!”, which was interpreted as “We will bury you”. The diplomats took this as a threat and stirred up quite a commotion. Later it was shown that what Khrushchev wanted to say was somethings in the line of “We shall be present at your funeral” or “We shall outlive you.”. Although still being threatening, it was considerably softer.

Expensive branding

When the catchphrase of the bank HSBC was mistranslated from “Assume Nothing” to “Do Nothing” in various countries in 2009, HSBC had to launch a rebranding campaign costing them more than $10 million.

Changes in traditions

Back in the 1950’s, chocolate companies began

encouraging people to celebrate Valentine’s Day in Japan. A mistranslation in one of the bigger campaigns gave the people the idea that women should give chocolate to men on February 14th instead of the traditional other way around. Still to this day it is customary for women to buy chocolate and gifts to the men in Japan. Later, to rectify their mistakes, the companies boosted the 14th of Mars as a follow-up celebration, labelling it “White Day”. On this day, men traditionally gave back the chocolates to the women. Later it has evolved to a day where men buy expensive gifts and jewellery for their women.

U.S dollar plunge

A poorly English translated article by Guan Xiangdong in the China News Service lead to panic in the world’s foreign exchange market and a plunge in value for the U.S dollar. While the original article was purely speculative, the English translation was much more authoritative and concrete.

Giovanni Virginio

Life on Mars

In 1877, the Italian astronomer Giovanni Virginio set out mapping the surface of Mars. He mapped the continents, the seas, and the areas in between, the channels, which he called “canali”. English speaking astronomers would later translate this to canals, implying that there once was a civilization advanced enough to build them inhabiting Mars. This again inspired some of the early science fiction movies like “War of the worlds” and “A Princess of Mars”.

The $71 million dollar word

In 1980, Willie Ramirez was admitted to a hospital in Florida in a comatose state. His family, which only spoke Spanish, tried to describe his condition. Translation was provided by a bilingual staff member who translated the word “intoxicado” as “intoxicated”. However, the actual case was that Ramirez was “poisoned”, which make a big difference in the way he would be threated. The mishandling of the situation caused Ramirez to be quadriplegic by the time he woke up from his coma, and the hospital was later charged a malpractice settlement of over $71 million.

Medical miscalculation

After receiving new radiation machines in a hospital in France, 7 cancer patients died and over 450 were inappropriately threated after receiving wrong doses of radiation. The instruction books of the machines were in English, and due to a mistranslation, the doses of radiation were miscalculated. This is known as one of the most serious medical mistranslations to occur in France.

Come back to life

In 1963 Pepsi encouraged costumers to buy their products with the slogan: “helps ‘em come alive”. When the product was shipped out to China, they experienced a massive drop in sales. Apparently, their slogan translated into Mandarin Chinese was reading “Bring your dead ancestors back to life”.

Eat your fingers

For more than 50 year, the American fast-food chain Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) used the slogan “It’s Finger-Lickin’ Good”. For English speakers, this meant that the chicken tasted so good you would lick your fingers after eating it. When translated into Mandarin Chinese it read “Eat Your Fingers”. In 2011, KFC changed their slogan to “So Good”, making it easier to translate.

When crossing frontiers and continents, languages, and cultures changes. Many translation mistakes we laugh about, and we continue with our life. Others have serious implications for the economy and health for those affected. Therefore translators, after studying several years, use their expertise, experience, and knowledge to translate into their native language and to convey the meaning of the original message to a different marked than intended.

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