If we think about it, it seems unlikely and even improbable that a translation error could cause a war between nations or end up causing thousands of deaths.
However, history is scarred by incidents in international relations caused by discrepancies in the translation of communications, treaties, and speeches.
More plausible and less serious are those translation errors that generate bad publicity in marketing. Marketing translations require the ability to adapt content relating to products or brands from one country to another and requires the use of local professionals capable of avoiding any possible misinterpretation or ambiguity.
Would you like to learn a few of the most famous translation errors with real and impactful consequences? Follow us! 😊
1. Evidence of life on Mars
The 19th century Italian astronomer Giovani Schiaparelli designated specific areas of the red planet using the Italian word canali.
Canali should have been translated originally as “channels,” which refers to natural structures. However, it was translated as “canals,” a very similar-sounding English word, that refers specifically to artificial structures, built by intelligent life.
This caused future scientists to understand these channels (which turned out to be optical illusions) as something built rather than a natural feature, firmly believing that Schiaparelli had proven the existence of life on Mars!
H. G. Wells, author of War of the Worlds, was one of the writers influenced by this misunderstanding.
2. Inconsistencies in the Treaty of Waitangi
The Treaty of Waitangi was signed in 1840 between the British Crown and the chiefs of the Confederation of the United Tribes of New Zealand and other Maori tribes, in both English and Maori languages. 🥝 🥝
The treaty guaranteed the sovereignty of the Queen of England over New Zealand, with tribal chiefs maintaining leadership and ownership of their lands and possessions, as well as the same rights as British settlers. However, where the English version mentioned “sovereignty,” the Maori translation referred only to “protection,” thus, many Maori believe that the Crown didn’t honor the agreement.
This misunderstanding is at the root of conflicts between the Maori and British descendants to this day.
3. The sexual desire of a president for a whole nation
Did Jimmy Carter, president of the United States in the 1970-80s, when officially visiting Poland to give a speech, say how he lusted for the people of that country—in the carnal sense? Of course not!
Nonetheless, this was the understanding of Carter’s interpreter at the speech, no doubt pressed by the immediacy of simultaneous translation, that inadvertently used the Polish term relating to carnal desire. 💗
When Carter, in the same speech, mentioned that he had left the USA that morning obviously only to make the said trip, the same interpreter understood that the president of the United States of America himself had definitively left his native country and that’s how he shared the information with an astonished audience! 😤
4. Cold War misunderstanding
In 1956, a statement by Nikita Khrushchev, My vas pokhoronim! translated as “We will bury you!” was interpreted as a nuclear threat and inflamed people worldwide. At the summit, several NATO officials left the venue expressing their disgust and indignation.
This phrase became world famous in 1985 in pop singer Sting’s hit, “Russians.”
“In the rhetorical speeches of the Soviets
Mister Krushchev said, ‘We will bury you’
I don’t subscribe to this point of view
It’d be such an ignorant thing to do
If the Russians love their children too.” 1
Actually, the intention of the original sentence was a simple reference to Karl Marx’s work that said something like “The proletariat is the undertaker of capitalism,” i.e. that the proletariat—the native workers of any given country themselves—would eventually subdue their capitalist rulers (Marx had used the term undertaker in a figurative sense). ☠️
While not a nice statement, this wasn’t a threat either, but rather a prediction that the people will always rebel to crush regimes they find oppressive.
This translator’s error could have caused a nuclear war! 🤯
5. How one word may have bombed Hiroshima
Mokusatsu is a Japanese word composed of two kanji characters formed by two words that, understood individually and literally, mean “death” and “silence.”
Figuratively, it means that out of contempt, common sense, or wisdom, we prefer not to comment on a situation.
In 1945, this simple yet ambiguous word was the Japanese Prime Minister Kantaro Suzuki’s response to the ultimatum from the allied countries demanding the immediate surrender of the “country of the rising sun.” Kantaro meant that he preferred not to comment on the ultimatum at that time.
Today, this term could very well be translated as “No comment,” but at the time, international journalists reported the Prime Minister’s response as “not worthy of comment,” translated in a negative light, without even mentioning the ambiguity of the word.
Americans understood that the Prime Minister had refused any possibility of ending the war by diplomatic means, and a few days later the Enola Gay dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima resulting in the death of many thousands of people.
Of course, we cannot be sure that the nuclear tragedy wouldn’t still have happened regardless of this mistranslation, but the NSA itself believes that this understanding of the Japanese response as a rejection of negotiation influenced the decision, and has since then disclosed the previously “classified” document.
6. Deadly slogans
Let’s visit New Zealand again!
In 2018, Coca-Cola tried to combine on one of its vending machines the English term “mate” (meaning “friend”) with the Maori kia ora (hello) in a slogan that would mean—hopefully—”Hello, friend”…
However, the translators were unaware that the word mate in Maori means “death,” which resulted in the product being marketed in New Zealand in a very unflattering way, as it greeted the Maori people with a “Hello, death!“…
Let’s just say, with that amount of sugar, it’s no surprise! 🍬
We will stay with Coca-Cola, but now traveling to the most populous country in the world, China.
In the roaring 1920s, the well-known brand initially translated the product name with the similar-sounding word kekoukela, unaware that in some Chinese dialects the term meant something like “wax tadpole bite” or “wax-stuffed mare.”
Pretty ridiculous, uh? Fortunately, the professionals eventually came up with the alternative kokoukole, also evoking the original name, but meaning something like “happiness in the mouth.”
Still in China, Coca-Cola’s main competitor, Pepsi, decided to literally translate its catch phrase “Come alive!” which meant the drink makes you feel alive, and reportedly saw national sales plummet!
For the Chinese, the product promised to raise the dead from their graves, which was seen very negatively by a people who respect their ancestors tremendously.
Besides, who wants to see their deceased relatives come out of their graves?
We hope no one!
A perfect example of how translation often requires adaptation and requires knowledge of the culture of both peoples, not just linguistic knowledge of the two languages.
7. Electrolux is the worst!
Those who have even a basic knowledge of American English know that the term “suck” (from “suction”) can be figuratively used as an adjective, to describe something or someone that is no good.
In the 1970s, Electrolux, a company originally from Sweden, turned to a British marketing company to create their slogan for the international English market, to reinforce the suction power of their vacuum cleaners: “Nothing sucks like Electrolux.” An innocuous slogan in UK English, but disastrous in US English! “There’s nothing worse than Electrolux”! 🤣
8. Flying nude
American Airlines in Mexico wanted to promote their first-class leather seats through an advertising campaign with a simple and straightforward slogan: “Fly in leather,” which the company literally translated as Vuela en cuero.
Those who translated the slogan did not bother to research the people, culture, and language of the countries they would be launching their campaign in. They ignored that, for Mexicans, en cuero means to be naked, thus an invitation to travel nude.
As a result of this careless slogan, the company suffered not only financial losses, but also reputational damage and loss of confidence in the country.
9. Machine Translator Gaffe
When Israeli singer Netta Barzilai won the Eurovision festival in Lisbon with a song about self-love regardless of physical appearance, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu decided to congratulate her publicly by posting in Hebrew on Twitter: Netta, at kapparah amitit.
Kapparah is a colloquial term meaning affection, translating into something like “Netta, you’re a dear.” However, the Bing automatic translator understood the word as the similar word keparah, meaning “cow,” translating the Prime Minister’s congratulations into an awkward “Neta, you’re a real cow” (yes, it was that bad) … 😮
Can you imagine how embarrassed and dumbfounded everyone was when reading the online post before it was corrected by Microsoft itself?
10. These pens won’t get you pregnant
When launching their product on the Mexican market, the well-known brand of pens, Parker, translated the slogan “It won’t leak in your pocket and embarrass you” into Spanish.
I bet you’re already guessing it didn’t go well…
The term “embarrass” was very illustrative of getting ink all over your shirt pocket at a business meeting—that is embarrassing!
However, when translating into the local language they chose the word with the most similar sound and spelling, embarazar, which means to get pregnant…
It’s very comforting to know that you only need to use a Parker pen in your pocket, and you will not risk getting pregnant ever! Who needs contraception? 💊💊
Did you have fun?
Some of these stories are widely reported but have not been confirmed by the brands in question, nor has factual evidence of the incidents been found. However, the brands haven’t disproved them either! As for others, there is documented and photographic evidence.
Take a look at our reading suggestions to learn more about this subject:
☞ “Mokusatsu: One Word, Two Lessons,” NSA Technical Journal, 1968, XIII-4, p. 95-100 https://www.cia.gov/readingroom/
☞ Dinah Shelton, “Reconcilable Differences – The Interpretation of Multilingual Treaties,” 20 Hastings Int’l & Comp. L. Rev. 611 (1997). https://repository.uchastings.edu/hastings_international_comparative_law_review/vol20/iss3/8
☞ “Erreurs de traduction et malentendus diplomatiques,” Valère Ndior, pp. 297-312