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Tiny Translation Mistakes That Lead to Huge Problems

Small Translation Mistakes Don’t Necessarily Mean Small Problems

Translators may not always be noticed by the general public, but often the work they perform is of critical importance.Small translation errors can result in problems that seem far out of proportion to the size of the mistake made. A job performed well may not get translators noticed, but a small mistake on a critical translation can certainly draw attention. The following are some examples of translation blunders and the results:

World Foreign Exchange Markets Takes Steep Dive

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A speculative overview of some financial reports was the topic of an article by Guan Xiangdong of the Chinese News Service. An English translation of this purely speculative article was poorly done, and resulted in an article that sounded very authoritative and concrete. Panic ensued in the world’s foreign exchange markets causing a dramatic drop in the value of the U.S. Dollar.

Translation Trouble for the Maori

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In 1840 the Maori and the British signed the Treaty of Waitangi. Unfortunately the documents signed by the two parties involved were not the same. The English version of the treaty stated that the Maori were to “cede to Her Majesty the Queen of England absolutely and without reservation all the rights and powers of Sovereignty.” The Maori version that was composed by a British missionary said they were not giving up sovereignty, but governance. According to their translation of the treaty they were gaining a legal system but retaining the right to rule themselves. Until today there are still issues caused by this translation mistake.

Multimillion Dollar Single Word Translation Mistake

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Willie Ramirez was admitted to a Florida hospital in a comatose state during 1980, at the age of 18. His friends and family only spoke Spanish so a translation of what the family was relating regarding the patient’s condition was provided by a bilingual staff member. The translation misinterpreted the word “intoxicado” as “intoxicated.” “Intoxicado ” is actually closer in meaning to “poisoned” and doesn’t carry the same connotations of drug or alcohol use that “intoxicated” does. Ramirez’s family was trying to say they thought he was suffering from food poisoning. He actually had an intracerebral hemorrhage, but the doctors proceeded as if he had taken an intentional drug overdose. Tragically, because correct treatment was delayed, Ramirez was left a quadriplegic. He received a malpractice settlement of $71 million.

We Will Bury You

translation errors

Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev gave a speech at the height of the cold war, in which he spoke a phrase that translates from Russian as “we will bury you.” Tension between the U.S. and Russia escalated as this was taken as a threat to bury the U.S. with a nuclear attack. The Russian phrase was meant to convey the meaning that “we will live to see you buried” or “we will outlast you. Not near as threatening as it first appeared, even if not exactly affectionate.

Horned Moses

translation errors

St. Jerome, the patron saint of translators, studied Hebrew so he could translate the Old Testament into Latin from the original, instead of from the third century Greek version others used. The resulting Latin version became the basis for hundreds of translations that followed although it contained a famous mistake. When Moses comes down from Mount Sinai his head has “radiance” or, in Hebrew, “karan.” Because Hebrew is written without the vowels, St. Jerome read “karan” as “keren,” or “horned.” This translation error resulted in centuries of paintings and sculptures of Moses with horns and the odd offensive stereotype of the horned Jew.

Assume Nothing Costs $10 Million

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HSBC bank had to launch a $10 million re-branding campaign in 2009 to rectify the harm done when its catchphrase “Assume Nothing” was mistranslated as “Do Nothing” in various countries.

Where Is Sheng Long?

translation errors

Not every translation mistake costs millions to repair or is a matter of life and death. There are some funny translation mistakes as well. For example, a character in the Japanese video game Street Fighter II says, “if you cannot overcome the Rising Dragon Punch, you cannot win!” The Japanese to English translation interpreted the characters for “rising dragon” as “Sheng Long.” The characters can have different readings in Japanese, and being unaware of context, the translator believed a new person was being introduced to the game. Electronic Gaming Monthly published elaborate and difficult to execute instructions for how to find Sheng Long as an April Fool’s Day joke in 1992. The hoax wasn’t revealed until that December.

Future Lusts

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In 1977 President Carter traveled to Poland. A Russian interpreter who knew Polish, but was not experienced interpreting it professionally was hired by the State Department. Through the interpreter, Carter ended up saying things in Polish like “when I abandoned the United States” (for “when I left the United States”) and “your lusts for the future” (for “your desires for the future”), which provided entertainment for media in both countries.

His and Her Chocolates

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Chocolate companies began encouraging people to celebrate Valentine’s Day in Japan in the 1950s. One company’s mistranslations caused people to think it was customary for men to receive chocolate from women on the holiday and it continues today. On February 14, women in Japan give their men chocolate hearts and truffles, and men return the favor on March 14. In this case the translation mistake proved to be a benefit for chocolate companies.


As these examples show, translation mistakes may result in serious consequences. When a translation is needed, the best idea is often to use professional translation services.


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What’s more, we’ve prepared a few Spanish translation tips for avid learners.

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