7 Translation Mistakes That Wreaked Havoc

From losing millions of dollars to annexing miles of territory

Photo: Ramon Kagie/Unsplash

Multilingual people will agree that translating is a tricky business. More often than not, perfectly immaculate sentences don’t convey the same meaning when replicated in another language. Oftentimes, leading to hilarious episodes. We only need to gloss over the humourous stories of people getting in trouble using, ‘Estoy Caliente’ when they were feeling hot. Or better still, the hilarious signboard outside a temple in Bangkok— “It is forbidden to enter a woman even a foreigner if dressed as a man” — to see the dilemma of translating. Unfortunately, sometimes consequences of awry translation are worse than a few guffaws and half a spoon of embarrassment. Check out these seven instances where shoddy translating resulted in colossal troubles.

An Antisemitic Stereotype

Mistranslation can create some major misunderstandings. As it did when it became the reason behind hurtful stereotypes around the ‘horned Jew’. While translating the Old Testament from Hebrew to Latin, St. Jerome made a small error. At the juncture where Moses descends from Mount Sinai his head had been described as ‘radiance’. Now, Hebrew is written without the vowels and the word of radiance, ‘karan’ was mistaken for ‘keren’ or horned. The translation mistake led to centuries of artwork around Moses that presents him with horns. Some not so well-meaning people took the leap to equate the feature with the Devil. Even when the misunderstanding was identified, the image that has been too ingrained to be completely weeded out and still lingers on as an odd antisemitic stereotype.

Treaty of Waitangi

Signed in 1840, the Treaty of Waitangi is a peculiar historical document — A bilingual document in Maori and English with a touch of horrible translation in the middle. The recipe boiled out as the very antithesis of an agreement with both the parties signing on to different terms. In the Maori version, they cede the governance rights to the Crown and the indigenous people keep the chieftainship. Conversely, the English version absorbs ‘all rights and power of sovereignty’ leaving a massive room for conflict. Following this agreement, huge confusion ensued when the parties simply tried to assert their claims of the document. The contention reached a tipping point in 1845 and was one of the major causes behind the 3000 lives lost in the New Zealand Wars. Even today the treaty continues to baffle both parties and historians alike.

Japanese, “No Comment”

The bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki is one of the turning points in human history. The incident stands out as a testament to the damage nuclear armament can unleash on our planet. Day before the bombing, the Americans had called for the unconditional surrender of the Japanese in the Potsdam Declaration. On being asked about his opinion, the Prime Minister of Japan, Suzuki famously replied with ‘Mokusatsu’. A word that means both ‘no comment’ and ‘ignore with contempt’ in Japanese. Unfortunately, the phrase was translated as the ruder version which may have conveyed a stronger disregard for the agreement than the Japanese intended. Now, obviously, Americans did not unleash the nuclear bombs based on just one word. But, considering the magnitude of the event, even the subtle effect of this mistranslation translated as a tremendous impact on how history played out.

A Word That Cost 71 Million Dollars

In the medical field, a mistranslation can be the difference between life and death. And so it happened to Willie Ramirez who had to suffer quadriplegia due to a communication error. In 1980, the eighteen-year-old arrived at a South Florida hospital in a comatose state. Records indicate that his kin used the word, ‘intoxicado’ to describe his situation. A word which in Cuban Spanish refers to ingesting anything from a hamburger to poison. This word was erroneously interpreted as ‘intoxicated’ in the ER. As a result, the doctors treated Ramirez for a self-inflicted drug overdose and completely missed a hemorrhage for two days. Subsequently, Willie Ramirez secured a 71-million-dollar malpractice settlement which is one of the landmarks in judicial history. Based on just one word, this medical tragedy paved the way for medical reforms and serves as a testament to the damage bad translation can incur.

General Electric Branding Gaffe

In 1988, General Electric merged with Plessey to create a brand new telecom giant. After much deliberation, the company chose to brand itself around technology and innovation. They settled on GPT, an acronym for GEC Plessey Telecommunication as their brand name. However, their marketing team failed to strike a chord with the French where the name translated into something rather ridiculous. GPT has a bawdy homophone in ‘J’ai pété’ which means ‘I farted’, completely delineating the company from any associations with innovation. This unexpecting blunder caved a massive hole in GPT’s pockets with an expensive rebranding campaign that devoured millions.

Life on Mars

In the 1870s, Giovanni Virginio Schiaparelli pioneered the mapping of the Martian surface. While describing the geographical channels on the planet he used the Italian word, ‘canali’ which was later mistranslated as canals in English. In the pre-internet age, this resulted in massive confusion with some people jumping the gun and touting the map as proof of life on Mars. The widespread belief in the presence of Martians stoked some of the earliest extraplanetary conspiracy theories. Eventually, it inspired HG Wells to write The War of the Worlds, urging the initial strides into the largely unexplored territory of sci-fi writing.

Pepsi Becomes a Shaman in China

A famous example of marketing debacles is the Chinese version of 1960s Pepsi’s famous slogan. When Pepsi was making inroads into the untapped markets of the developing world, they came up with an elaborate slogan, “Come Alive! You’re the Pepsi Generation”. Owing to the success of this campaign in the West, they saw fit to extend it overseas. When this slogan reached China it was translated as, “Pepsi brings your ancestors back to life” tying the brand with a rather fanciful promise. Obviously, the campaign had to be quickly abandoned and the laughable attempt was swept under the carpet. Ever since then, this case study has gone down in the marketing textbooks as a cautionary tale for brands failing to pay heed to their consumers’ culture.

A bewildered star gazer thrusting from distortion to discovery.

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