As our world becomes increasingly dependent on services performed by computers rather than people, translation has also become the victim of this process. But paying for good translation has always been a challenge, as demonstrated by the following 8 epic translation mistakes.
1. In a 1977 visit to Poland, though not dependent on computers yet, Jimmy Carter could have definitely used better translation. Upon his interpreter’s advice, Carter famously expressed sexual desire for the then-Communist nation. He meant to say that he was happy to be in Poland and wanted to know their desires for the future but said instead, “I am happy to grasp at Poland’s private parts” and expressed desire to know their “lusts for the future” rather than their “desire for the future.” To make matters worse, Carter’s interpreter then translated, “I left the United States this morning” into “I left the United States, never to return.”
2. A mistranslation that continues to have legal implications occurred in New Zealand in 1840, when the Treaty of Waitangi was drawn. The English version ceded absolute sovereignty to the Queen of England, while the Maori text, translated cheaply by British missionaries, did not give up sovereignty, just governance.
3. United Kingdom based international bank, HSBC Holdings should have consulted professional translators before embarking on their $10 million “Assume Nothing” campaign. The campaign sounded fine in English but the problem came when there was no exact translation available in certain languages, making “Do Nothing” the closest fit. Not exactly a convincing way to draw people to use your services!
4. One of most epic translation fails ever came when then Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev famously said a phrase that was translated as “we will bury you.” The phrase in Russian really just meant “we will outlast you,” but the mistranslation was mistaken as a direct threat of nuclear attack, resulting in a massive escalation of tensions.
5. One badly translated news story resulted in the crash of the foreign exchange market, the tumbling in the value of the dollar and worldwide panic. The journalist for the Chinese People’s Daily had really just written a speculative story about what could happen if Chinese currency appreciated. When the story was handed off to be quickly translated into English, the translation came out much more extreme than simply the creative musings of a reporter who normally writes about tourism.
6. In the 1960’s, Pepsi launched a campaign that in English said “Come alive! You’re in the Pepsi generation.” In Chinese, however, this translated to “Pepsi Brings Your Ancestors Back from the Dead!”
7. In 2011, Nokia released the Lumia cellphone, which did very well in many countries. However, Nokia neglected to check that the name was fitting in each country it was released, as “Lumia” means “prostitute” in Spanish.
8. In another funny, modern example, the wording for a construction sign was sent by UK officials to be translated to Welsh. All official signs in Wales are in English and Welsh and so this was a standard procedure, using in-house translators. However, the sign that went up read, “I am not in the office at the moment. Send any work to be translated.”