The top 5 worst translation mistakes in history

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As the old cliché says, the meaning of words is often lost in translation. Being able to speak multiple languages does not make one into a translator. This is shown to be true throughout history. Below, we take a look at some of the biggest interpretation and translation mistakes that have ever been made.


Perhaps the most famous and most recent instance of an interpretation mistake was Nelson Mandela’s memorial service. Interpreter, Thamsanqa Jantjie, made up sign language motions to interpret the words spoken by various speakers at the memorial service. Jantjie had experience as a signer in the past but intentionally sabotaged the sign interpretation during Mandela’s services for reasons that are unknown. Jantjie has since been committed to a psychiatric hospital for treatment of his schizophrenia.


During the Cold War, the Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev, gave a famous speech in which his words were interpreted to say, “We will bury you.” The United States took this as a threat of nuclear war. They later found out that Khrushchev meant something totally different. The interpretation of his words was completely wrong. Khruschcev’s words should have been interpreted to say something along the lines of, “We will outlast you.”


In 2009, HSBC bank was forced to spend $10 million on a re-branding campaign to get a hold of its public reputation after its slogan of “Assume Nothing” was translated as “Do Nothing” to a wide variety of countries.


President Jimmy Carter took a diplomatic trip to Poland in 1977. His interpreter was a Russian who allegedly understood Polish. This interpreter failed to properly interpret President Carter’s sentiments and said some of his phrases in Polish that made him look terrible. For example, he interpreted Carter’s sentence of, “When I left the United States,” to “When I abandoned the United States.”


The famous case of Willie Ramirez shows the importance of an accurate interpretation. In 1980, Ramirez was brought to a Florida hospital as he was suffering from food poisoning. When his Latino friends brought him to the hospital, their Spanish word of “intoxicado” was interpreted as intoxicated instead of poisoned. The doctors treated him as if he had overdosed on drugs. Ramirez was rendered quadriplegic as a result of the doctors’ improper treatment and he won a malpractice lawsuit that resulted in a $71 million award.

Difference between interpreting and translating: interpreting is the “oral” form of translation, when someone interprets for a person in court for instance, whereas translating is the written form, i.e. translation of a book.

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