5 translation mistakes with serious consequences

When it comes to important matters, the slightest translation error can have dramatic consequences. For a translator, knowing how to communicate the meaning of a text is key. To give you an idea, here are some of the most striking translation mistakes we have found;

Historical translation mistakes

French, a very demanding language (1830)

In 1830, Paris and Washington had a big dispute regarding compensation… and all because of a false friend!
A message sent by the French government to the White House read as follows: “The French government “demande” (asks)…”, which was translated as “The French government “demands”…”, a word with very different connotationsAnnoyed, the American President of the time formally replied that if the French government dared to “demand” anything from the United States, it would get nothing at all. Fortunately, the mistranslation was quickly corrected and the tension began to decrease afterwards.

“Mokusatsu”, a dangerous polysemy (1945)

Atomic bomb in HiroshimaThis is a mistake with particularly serious consequences, according to what William Craig wrote in his book “The Fall of Japan“. During the Potsdam Conference (July 1945), the Allies presented the Japanese government with an ultimatum and demanded Japan’s unconditional surrender. Later on, the Asian press urged Japanese Prime Minister Kantaro Suzuki to communicate a reaction. Pressured by the journalists, Suzuki replied that the Japanese government “abstained from commenting” using the term Mokusatsu (黙殺), a word with a particularly rich polysemy. The Japanese press translated the term as “silent treatment” / “disregard of the proposition“/”ignoring“, which was received by the Americans as a “resounding refusal” to surrender. Ten days later, the city of Hiroshima was devastated by the notorious American atomic bomb.

President Carter’s Polish misadventures (1977)

Official portrait of the 39th American president Jimmy Carter

In 1977, the 39th American President Jimmy Carter visited Poland. This country, still communist at the time, had a (very) cold relationship with Russia and was firmly against the Iron Curtain. This was, therefore, a quick and diplomatic visit before the President returned to the United States.
A freelance translator named Steven Seymour was hired to translate his speech. That was the beginning of the disaster.
Seymour translated (in Russian) that Carter wanted to “get to know the Polish people in a carnal way” and that he “did not plan to return to the United States“. The President simply wanted to express his curiosity about the “the desired future” of the Polish people and explain that he was returning to his country after the speech.
Naturally, the translator was fired.

Later, on this same visit, President Carter made a toast at an official dinner, having already hired another interpreter (Jerzy Krycki). Krycki did even worse than his predecessor. The president would pause after each sentence in order to let the interpreter talk, but he remained completely speechless (he didn’t understand Carter’s English!).

Confusing translations with surprising results

Martian canals (1877)

Italian astronomer Giovanni Virginio Schiaparelli began mapping Mars in 1877. What he didn’t know was that he was also creating a true work of science fiction. During his mapping, he distinguished dark and light areas on the red planet. To describe them, he used terms such as “seas“, “continents” and the Italian word “canali“, which was translated into English as “canals“. This interpretation was welcomed by his colleagues, and the use of the word “canali” led many researchers to believe that these channels had been created by intelligent Martian life forms.

Map of the "Canals" of Italian astronomer Giovanni Virginio Schiaparelli
American astronomer Percival Lowell took this theory very seriously and mapped hundreds of “canals” on Mars between 1894 and 1895. He published three books on the subject, illustrating what he thought were massive artificial structures to transport water on the red planet, built by a brilliant alien race of engineers. Lowell’s works deeply inspired the writer H.G. Wells, to whom we owe the famous work “The War of the Worlds” (1897).

Medical details (1980)

Florida, January 22, 1980. An 18-year-old Cuban boy is hospitalized in a comatose state. His name is Willie Ramirez, and his family thinks he suffers from food poisoning, although they don’t speak a word of English. Desperate, the Ramirez family calls one of the bilingual doctors of the hospital to translate. They claimed William suffered from food poisoning, using the spanish term “intoxicado“, which is quite different in English. English speakers use the term “intoxicated” to refer to a person who is drunk or under the influence of drugs. The doctor made a literal translation and, since the hospital’s technical resources were limited and the symptoms resembled an intoxication, the doctors decided to follow this lead. Unfortunately, the patient actually suffered a brain hemorrhage and, due to the absence of treatment, he became quadriplegic. Later on, the hospital paid Mr. Ramirez $71 million in compensation for this serious medical and translation failure.

Each and every one of these mistakes have made history. They are proof of the importance of choosing a good professional translator. This is precisely what we do. At Eazylang, we find the best translator for your project. Come visit us at www.eazylang.com 😉.


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