7 translation mistakes that caused big problems

Sergio Afonso, expert at Absolute Translations, lists 7 times the true meaning got lost in translation.

translated baggage sign

Translations can be dangerous if not executed efficiently and correctly, being knowledge of multiple languages is a skill. The most common translations mistakes are often caused by incompetence or ignorance of cultural context. In the globalised world of today, even a minor translation error in a billboard, public place or online can cause big problems. Text is sometimes translated multiple times before the final product which can result in errors. Once translation mistakes reach a global audience, the error can go viral and result in financial loss and damage to a brand’s reputation.

To show you just why you should hire a professional language and translation service provider, the experts at Absolute Translations have nailed down the top 7 translation mistakes that caused big problems.

1)    Chocolates for him

In the ‘50s, chocolate companies in Japan began to encourage the celebration of Valentines Day. A mistranslation from one company suggested to people that during the holiday it was customary for women to give men chocolates, and it still happens to this day. On February 14th, the women of Japan gift their men chocolates and on March 14th the men return the favour!

2)    Do nothing

In 2009, HSBC launched a new campaign with the tagline ‘Assume Nothing’, the problems started when launching the campaign in other non-English speaking countries with the tagline, it was mistakenly translated to ‘Do Nothing’. This mistake seems small, but it caused big problems when people reacted negatively towards it. The bank reportedly spent 10 million dollars to reverse the mistake.

3)    We will bury you

An interpreter made a mistake when translating a speech from the Soviet Prime Minister Nikita Khrushchev. The translation he used was ‘we will bury you’ which was taken as threat and a costly mistranslation. People assumed that Russia was going to unleash a nuclear attack on the US!

4)    Tragic accidents

Medical translation is very important and can be the difference of life and death. In 2004, hospital staff in France were sentenced for the mistreatment of over 450 cancer patients over the course of 4 years, 7 patients died of cancer due to the wrong translations of manuals. The hospital had installed brand new radiation machines to treat cancer patients and the manuals were written in English. Tragically, this was all due to the incorrect translations of key words and terminologies into French from English.

5)    Chinese errors

The global slogan for KFC is ‘Finger lickin’ good’, but when moving to China the phrase translated to ‘We’ll eat your fingers off’, which didn’t do well for customer attraction. When Coke first attempted to translate its brand name phonetically into Chinese, it proved a lot of hardship. To native speakers they heard, ‘bite the wax tadpole’ and ‘female horse stuffed with wax.’

6)    Scandalous revelations

General Electric attempted to release its new partnership brand in Europe under the name of GPT. This simple translation should have no problems, but in fact caused a big scandal. GPT is pronounced ‘J’ai pété’ which means ‘I farted’. A lot of money was lost, and reputations were damaged before any reversing could be done.

7)    Dodgy drinks

Famous American beer maker Coors faced a big translation blunder with their tagline ‘Turn it loose’, it was translated into Spanish as ‘suffers from diarrhoea’. The brand got noticed in Spain but not for the right reasons. Popular beverage brand Schweppes faced a similar situation when selling in Italy, the ‘Schweppes Tonic Water’ became ‘Schweppes Toilet Water’, this was a big turn off for potential customers and sales were very low at the start of their global campaign.

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