Top 5 Worst Translation Fails of All Time
Every language learner knows that making mistakes is part of the becoming proficient in a foreign language. And when you make a mistake with your friends, it’s really not that big of a deal and definitely not “worst translation fails of all time” territory.
For example, if you say something wrong when ordering an espresso in Italy, nothing bad happens. Likewise, a faux pas among friends can be a good laugh.
But when you are a business with a seven figure budget translating an ad campaign, or a government hiring an interpreter for important meetings with heads of state… you need to make sure you’re getting the right stuff. The higher the stakes, the more serious the consequences of a bad translation.
Here are some real world examples of some serious translation blunders
1. In the hospital, translations can mean life or death
When 18 year old baseball player Willie Ramirez was brought to a hospital in South Florida, he was already in a coma. His Cuban family told the interpreter he was “intoxicado.” The interpreter misinterpreted the Cuban-Spanish word as “intoxicated.”
That mistake led to dire consequences.
Ramirez’ case is famous because it demonstrates the serious risks of a faulty medical interpretation or translation. Doctors failed to treat him correctly, believing he was merely intoxicated. Cuban Spanish speakers know that being “intoxicado” doesn’t mean intoxicated in the sense most English speakers know it. Being “intoxicado” in Cuban Spanish means being sick after ingesting something. That something could be anything: food, drug, or anything that makes a person feel sick. The interpreter’s mistranslation led to medical staff treating Ramirez for a drug overdose.
But Ramirez did not overdose on drugs. Instead, he had bleeding in his brain. When the doctors realized this, it was too late. The damage was done and Ramirez was left a quadriplegic. Ultimately, he received a malpractice settlement of $71 million.
2. You must defeat Sheng Long to stand a chance!
In the Japanese version of Street Fighter II the character Ryu says, “if you cannot overcome the Rising Dragon Punch, you cannot win!” When the game was translated from Japanese into English, the characters for “rising dragon” were interpreted as “Sheng Long.”
However, context is extremely important in translation. In Japanese, the same characters can have different readings. Working from a list of contextless phrases, the translator simply thought Sheng Long was a new character being added to the game.
Gamers went absolutely crazy trying to figure out who this mysterious Sheng Long was and how to defeat him but he was nowhere to be found.
The April 1992 issue of Electronic Gaming Monthly, “revealed” a method to reach Sheng Long in the arcade game. Supposedly, players had to complete a number of complicated and nearly impossible moves, resulting in a fight to the death between Ryu and Sheng Long. In the article, the reporter gave an honorable mention to “W.A. Stokins” (“Waste Tokens”) of “Fuldigen, HA.”
The joke became an international sensation. Publications from all across Europe, Hong Kong, and other countries reprinted the trick without verifying or asking permission. A Hong Kong comic based on Street Fighter II even altered their story to include Sheng Long. Players tried unsuccessfully for months to unlock Sheng Long.
Electronic Gaming Monthly only came clean about the April Fool’s joke in December, with the staff stating the worldwide coverage of their hoax surprised them.
3. The Treaty of Waitangi
Unfortunately history has shown us that an imperfect translation may cause you to give up something very dear.
In 1840, the British government struck a deal with Maori chiefs in New Zealand. The Maori wanted protection from roving sailors, convicts, and traders running wild through their villages, and the British wanted to expand their colonial holdings. The Treaty of Waitangi was drafted and both sides signed it.
But they were actually signing different documents.
In the English version, the Maori were to “cede to Her Majesty the Queen of England absolutely and without reservation all the rights and powers of Sovereignty.” However, a British missionary composed the Maori version. In it, they were not to give up sovereignty, but governance. The Maori thought they were getting a legal system while keeping the right to rule themselves.
That’s unfortunately not how it turned out. Generations later, people still argue over the meaning of the treaty. Today, the Treaty of Waitangi raises many ethical and important questions about legal translations.
4. Khrushchev will do what?!
On November 18, 1956 Communist leader and head of the Soviet Union Nikita Khrushchev attended a party at the Polish Embassy in Moscow. At that event, he boasted about the competition between Communism and “capitalist states” like the U.S.
One of those comments would go on to live in infamy. It would become his most famous (and infamous) quotation.
The words he spoke in Russian were “мы вас похороним” (my vas pokhoronim), a Russian idiomatic expression traditionally used as a humor-tinged taunt. The phrase was translated as “We will bury you,” taken as a chilling threat to bury the U.S. with a nuclear attack at the height of the cold war. This escalated already hot tensions between the U.S. and Russia to a fever pitch.
However, the translation was a bit too literal.
Some translators say it means “We will outlast you.” But since the word pokhoronim refers to a burial, it is most often interpreted as “We will be present at your funeral.” This expression is similar to the American English idiom, “It’s your funeral,” which is often used in jest.
Not exactly the friendliest of quotes, but not quite so threatening.
5. First no headphone jacks, now this
When Apple unveiled its much-anticipated iPhone 7, you can say that the Hong Kong market was… perplexed. As if Apple hadn’t gotten enough slack for not incorporating a headphone jack into the iPhone 7, things were about to get much worse for the tech giant. We think Apple will have to live this one down for years to come.
In Cantonese, the company’s slogan “This is 7,” translated roughly to “This is penis.” Not quite what they wanted as they tried to expand their global reach.
In Hong Kong where consumers’ primary language is Cantonese, the pronunciation of “7” sounds like a slang word for the male sex organ. Founded and made famous by tech mogul Steve Jobs, the company didn’t seem to have wowed customers as it had hoped with the iPhone 7, and its translation faux pas certainly didn’t help.
But Apple wasn’t along in scrambling to find the right words when marketing internationally. Samsung had a similar problem with its “Note 7” phone, which sounded like a “stick of penis” in Hong Kong.
Talk about a mouthful!
Avoiding costly translation mistakes
When it comes to avoiding costly translation mistakes, a little smart shopping goes a long way. An organization, government, or hospital doesn’t want to mimic the above translation blunders. In order to market the right way or speak to their intended audience clearly, consumers should hire a language solutions provider with subject matter experts who understand how to get it right. Otherwise, mishandled translations could leave you with a bad taste in your mouth—and possibly dire consequences.