Language focus | 13.05.2016

Infamous Translations

At The Translation People we’re the first to shout about our quality. It’s our absolute priority and our highly qualified team of translators prides itself on delivering accurate and well written translations. But what happens when a translation isn’t quite right? We’ve all seen the funny signs and dodgy menus when on holiday, but a bad translation can have far greater consequences than giving tourists a good laugh. Here we look at a few examples of mistranslations throughout history.


A nation founded on mistranslation

Take the Treaty of Waitangi: an agreement signed between the British and the indigenous Māori population of New Zealand back in 1840. 500 Māori chiefs signed the treaty, which had been duly translated by a British missionary. According to the translation, the chiefs believed they were giving the British permission to use their land while retaining their right to self-govern, when in fact the original English states that they agree to cede all rights of Sovereignty. An extreme example of inaccurate translation that still causes conflict today.

Proof of life on Mars

Several decades later, the discovery of life on Mars was wrongly announced following a mistranslation. The problem arose with the term ‘canali’ used by Italian astronomers to describe what they thought were channels on the planet’s surface. When translated as ‘canals’ instead, others working in the field became convinced that intelligent lifeforms had constructed a network of waterways across the planet. Books were published and astronomers came up with theories about life on the distant planet, before better technology proved that they were in fact just light and dark patches on Mars’ surface.

New traditions

Translating advertisements for foreign markets can be disastrous without thorough market research. A Japanese mistranslation of a chocolate ad in the 1950s ended up being a winner for the confectionary industry. In the days before Valentine’s Day was a well-known holiday across the world, a marketing campaign translated by a Japanese advertising executive suggested that it was customary for women to gift men sweet treats on February 14th – effectively inventing an entirely new tradition! It is now the custom for Japanese men to treat their wives or girlfriends to chocolate a month later on March 14th – a double success for chocolatiers!

Confused gamers

Street Fighter II was a cult favourite among gamers in the 1990s. It was made in Japan and translated in to English in the days before the widespread use of translation memory technology. Translators were reliant on their own records to keep translations consistent, which is tricky to do when translating long lists of software phrases out of context. On one occasion, the translator misunderstood the Japanese for “Rising Dragon” and rather than translating it literally, they wrote the characters as they sounded: “Sheng Long”. Gamers were confused by this mysterious character who suddenly appeared and was never mentioned again. Hours and hours were no doubt lost as they attempted to find and defeat him!

Official blunder

According to Welsh law, all road signs must be translated in the country’s two languages: Welsh and English. But an unfortunate mistake by an employee at Swansea City Council led to an out of office reply being printed on a road sign. As a non-Welsh speaker, the employee had no reason to doubt that the Welsh reply which they received when requesting translation was in fact telling them (in Welsh) that the recipient wasn’t available that day. Proof of the value of proofreading!

An expensive mistake

While the cost to replace a road sign is not insignificant, it’s a drop in the ocean compared to the $10 million rebranding cost to HSBC after their “Assume Nothing” campaign was mistranslated as “Do Nothing” in several languages. This really was an unfortunate message to be send customers at a time of financial uncertainty and in a business that depends on high trading volumes. The replacement slogan “The world’s private bank” thankfully posed less of a problem to the translation team.

The lesson from this? Always use a professional, mother-tongue translator and consider proofreading when publishing or printing translated materials.

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