Translation Goofs Can Bring Big Headaches

Jan 26, 2017

Content translation goofs can bring big headaches

Just knowing two languages does not a translator make. Over the years, even small mistakes in the translation of a single word or phrase have resulted in some big problems. This is why having professionally trained translators and editors is critical, no matter what the purpose of the translation.

The following are some seemingly small errors that had big impact.

  1. Ancient Hebrew and Moses’s Head

Hebrew is a tough language to learn, read, and translate because it has no vowels. In the 4th century, the man who is now named St. Jerome, translated the Hebrew Old Testament into Latin. He had studied Hebrew extensively and certainly felt up to the task. The story of Moses coming down from Mt. Sinai was pretty straightforward, except for one small item. The original Hebrew had him coming down with a glow around his head (Hebrew word = karan). Unfortunately, because of the lack of vowels, St. Jerome read it as “keren,” which means “horns.” So, for centuries, art work that depicted Moses had him horned.

  1. Life on Mars

A 19th century astronomer by the name of Giovanni Schiaparelli announced that he had seen “canali” on Mars. In Italian, the word means channels or ravines. When it was translated, however, the word became “canals” in English – man-made structures for various purposes. This began all of the buzz bout there once having been life on Mars, where a relatively sophisticated culture must have been able to build canals at least. Thus, the fixation thereafter of life on Mars and the amount of literature and movies that were the result.

  1. Serious and Deadly Consequences – 1945

When World War II ended in Europe, there was still the problem of ending the war in the Pacific, and the Japanese had proven to be fierce fighters. At the same time, we had developed the hydrogen bomb and felt we had some leverage to get this War concluded. In the Potsdam Declaration, President Truman sent a message to the Japanese saying that they must unconditionally surrender or the U.S. had to power to destroy them complete. It was received by the Japanese Premier Kantaro Suzuki. He spoke to the press a sentence that probably meant, “We are thinking about it.” (there were already negotiations going on between Japan and Russia to try to get a decent deal with a surrender). His statement was translated with the Japanese word “mokusatsu” which can have different meanings based on context. It was translated as something like, “We are ignoring your offer with contempt.” It was only a little over a week later that Truman dropped the first bomb on Hiroshima.

  1. How Many Ways to Bury?

In the heat of the Cold War, Russian Premier Nikita Khrushchev made a big speech at the Polish Embassy in Moscow. He targeted the U.S. and its evil system of capitalism. In it, he made a statement to the U.S. directly – a statement that was translated as “We will bury you.” To Americans, this meant he would use nuclear weapons to destroy capitalist societies. Froom those words, bomb shelters were built; people were taught to be very afraid, for they were about to get nuked. A more accurate translation of Khrushchev’s words has since been made. His statement really translates as “We will be around long after your system has buried you” – a pretty big difference.

  1. A Medical Translation Mistake Worth $71 Million

In the early 80’s, a Spanish-speaking family admitted their son through the emergency room of a hospital. The family believed that the young man was the victim of food poisoning. An amateur who spoke both English and Spanish translated for the family members. The Spanish word “intoxicado” was translated as “intoxicated” in English. The hospital staff believed that the lad was suffering from drug overdose, and treated him based on that. Unfortunately, the result left this young man a quadriplegic. This mistake cost the hospital $71 million in settlement. In Spanish, the word “intoxicado” means something much closer to “poisoned” rather than intoxicated.

  1. President Carter – Abandoning and Lusting

President Carter made an official visit to Poland in 1977. He was provided a Russian interpreter who knew Polish but who was not a native to the language. As Carter’s words were interpreted into Polish, he was saying things like “When I abandoned the United States” (instead of “left the United States”) and “lusts for the future” (instead of “desires for the future”). These awkward translations were the “meat” for a lot of jokes after that.

The Point

Mistakes occur in translation when amateurs take on this task. Sometimes they are funny; sometimes, however, there are more serious consequences. Whether for business, personal, or important diplomatic purposes, using professional translators is critical – translators who are trained, certified, know their native languages perfectly, along with a strong knowledge of the specific niche of the work. Using a professional translation service will also guarantee that at least two eyes will be on the project – the original translator and an editor who will review it for accuracy.