Famous Translation Mistakes that Had Huge Impacts

translation mistakes

When you need a phrase translated, you are likely not thinking about the numerous ways that a wrong translation can cause misunderstandings between people who speak different languages. Perhaps the importance of superior translations becomes most clear when mistakes are made, especially considering that one error can change the entire meaning of a message. In fact, it takes only one blunder to adversely affect someone’s health or cost your business a tremendous amount of money.

Here are some examples of famous translation mistakes that illustrate the challenges that occur because of poor translations.

The Idea of Martians Stems from a Translation Mistake

This translation error dates back to 1877, when Giovanni Schiaparelli, an Italian astronomer, observed the appearance of canali on Mars. Years later, this word was interpreted as canals, or irrigation systems, causing scientists to assume there must be life on Mars in order for such canals to be built. However, the Italian word canali is simply a general word to describe canals that are part of natural landscape and not necessarily built by people. Although the mistake in the translation was realized, theories about life on Mars have flourished through the years.

Mistranslation Leads to Perception of National Security Threat

The critical need for precise translations was particularly obvious on November 18th, 1956, when Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev stated words that were interpreted from Russian to mean, “We will bury you.” Since it was at the height of the Cold War, the statement was perceived to be a serious threat of a nuclear attack against the United States. Although the words were meant to be a stark warning, the threat was not as ominous at the translation would lead the United States to believe. Instead of the more literal translation that was made, the phrase actually was intended to mean, “We will outlast you” or “We will live to see you buried.”

Jimmy Carter’s Interpreter Makes Embarrassing Mistakes

When United States President Jimmy Carter traveled to Poland in 1977, his translator spurred a couple of rather humiliating phrasing mistakes. At the prompting of translator Steven Seymour, Carter said words in Polish that meant, “When I abandoned the United States”; he was trying to say, “When I left the United States.” As if that was not enough, Carter talked about Poland’s “lusts for the future,” instead of its “desires for the future.” Unfortunately, Seymour knew Polish, but he was not well versed in translating in the language on a professional level. This mistake shows how important it is to use language experts who are native speakers of both the source and target languages.

Medical Translation Error Causes Tremendous Health Problem

One of the most high-profile medical translation errors occurred in 1980, when 18-year-old Willie Ramirez was brought to a South Florida hospital in a coma. His Spanish-speaking family explained to the medical staff that Ramirez was intoxicado, meaning that he had ingested poison. However, the translator erroneously interpreted the word as meaning intoxicated, causing doctors to treat Ramirez as though he overdosed. Since Ramirez actually was experiencing a brain bleed, the delay in the treatment he needed caused him to become a quadriplegic; as a result, his family sued and received a settlement of $71 million.

Valentine’s Day is Celebrated Twice in Japan Thanks to a Mistranslation

If you like Valentine’s Day, why not celebrate it twice? That is what happens in Japan, as a result of a mistranslation that occurred in the 1950s. Because Valentine’s Day was a successful holiday in the United States, an executive at chocolate company Morozoff decided to bring the celebration to Japan. However, the company executive did not realize that the chocolates that are given out on the day are actually meant for women. As a result of the company’s advertising campaign and mistranslation, Japanese women thought they were supposed to give men the chocolate candy, instead of the other way around. The custom has carried on in Japan, with an addition; White Day was established on March 14th as the day that men give candy to women.

Advertising Slogan Sends Wrong Message

The success of an international marketing campaign starts with an accurate translation, which is something HSBC Bank learned the hard way in 2009. At that time, the bank had a popular slogan, “Assume Nothing,” which conveyed their investment strategy to English customers. Unfortunately, when they launched an advertising campaign that included their slogan in international markets, the words were mistakenly translated as “Do Nothing.” To correct their wrongly translated message, the bank spent $10 million on a rebranded advertising push with a slogan that resonated in their new markets.

The magnitude of translation mistakes can be underestimated, even though the negative outcomes can be huge. To ensure that your translations are the best possible, you must partner with a language services provider that can ensure accuracy, as well as provide cultural context to the translated material.


Some of the most famous translation mistakes highlight the importance of precise translations, as well as how much trouble a poor interpretation can cause.

1 Comment

  1. James Norton

    Thank you for sharing translation mistakes with us. This is really helpful to translators.

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