The title may sound like a dramatic hyperbole created simply to be a catchy headline – and yes, it is. But it’s also a dramatic catchy headline that happens to be true.

This week we’ve been covering a variety of topics regarding mistranslations, language service oversights and translation mistakes. Several articles were published within the last year which revealed a few of the most severe translation blunders, and some of the most public (and embarrassing) business translation mistakes made by international enterprises. Rather than just regurgitate yet another copycat list of translation bloopers, we’ll dig a little deeper; find out how or why the translation mistakes were made, and what the surrounding events were, as well as what resulted. You may be surprised at how reported circumstances were impacted so drastically, because of just two or three mistranslated words. Read on – the following may contain shocking (or not-so-shocking) content.

Famously Funny Translation Mistakes

While mistakes can occur when any language is translated, businesses should be especially vigilant about any type of Asian language translation. A disproportionate amount of translation errors, whether translated to or from English, are within Chinese, Japanese and Korean translation. Due to English-speaker tourism in China, several mistranslated Chinese to English translations have gone viral, due to their unintended humor. Small business owners trying to attract tourists probably think nothing of tasking themselves with a few words of English translation – presumably even when their English skills are few to non-existent; the most famous example being the handicapped bathroom sign that read “deformed man toilet.” These small mistakes don’t have much impact further than a tourist photograph and a good laugh, and in some ways, have even become an expected or entertaining factor of English-speaker tourism in China. But even Pepsi has flubbed up several translations, as well as localization processes, throughout the many years of international campaigning. One of the more recent ones, was regarding the slogan, “Come Alive with the Pepsi Generation.” Errant English to Chinese translation resulted in “Pepsi Brings your Ancestors Back from the Dead.” Obviously this was false advertising – not a single dead Chinese ancestor was reunited with their relatives.

Pepsi brings your ancestors back from the dead

Pepsi also made a bad judgment call in a commercial which broadcast in India, in 2004. Several news sources reported Pepsi was filed against in a litigation suit by the Hyderabad city court, for glorification of child labor in their locally aired commercial. The Pepsi commercial featured India’s cricket team in a huddle, when a child emerges from an underground tunnel and serves them Pepsi. The court also sued several other companies in relation to this particular commercial. While no actual document translation was the culprit here, it’s a lack of common sense not to ensure localized knowledge of culture in any marketing translation venture.

This is not just a matter of advising against machine or automated translation, but even more so against so-called translators who are not up for the job. Just because an agency or individual can speak a particular language, does make them qualified for translation. There are many, many elements of language translation that involve much more than simply knowing vocabulary and grammar of a language. Localization and cultural knowledge is a huge part, even with basic document translations.

In June of 2010, CBS News reported a speech made by the Swedish Chairman of BP Oil. Whether he wrote the speech himself, or had it written for him, his knowledge of English was clearly not enough to guarantee proper cultural translation. In reference to those affected by the enormous oil spill off the Gulf Coast last year, he said, “We care about the small people. I hear comments sometimes that oil companies, or greedy companies, don’t care. But that is not the case in BP, we care about the small people.” Obviously, referring to all those gravely affected by the oil spill as “small people,” probably offended just about everyone relevant, and the chairman of the company made himself appear cavalier and extremely condescending.

Again, it is not simply the words and vocabulary itself that need to be translated from language to language. In the above case, cultural linguistics had everything to do with why the chairman’s word choice was a very poor one. Sometimes a company gets the words right, but doesn’t take care to proofread for double entendres, slang meanings, or other inferences that play into a culture’s language. These things change with time, and are not a static element of language, which is why it is so important for a translator(s) to have long-term immersion within the culture of a given source language. A good illustration of what results when this is ignored by a translation company or source, comes from another Swedish company, Electrolux vacuums. The Swedish to English translation of their slogan was, “Nothing sucks like an Electrolux.” Because the company obviously was unaware of the slang inference, this slogan had a much different meaning to its target audience than the intended one.

When Translation Mistakes Turn Deadly…

Most of the above events were just funny and/or inconsequential – at least compared to the next two. These two examples of European language translation mistakes led to severe and tragic events, and really make you wonder why those responsible for the translations weren’t more conscientious about the accuracy – especially with the knowledge that people would be directly affected in a serious way.

The first incident occurred at a Berlin hospital, where knee transplant devices were sent from US manufacturers. Two versions of the implant were used: cemented and non-cemented. The implants sent to the Berlin hospital were labeled, “non-modular cemented,” and also included an English to German translation of the instruction manual inside, in adherence to German law regarding medical products. Because they used a backdoor approach to medical translation and simply used hospital staff to translate the label, which was translated erroneously as “non-cemented,” (rather than non-modular: cemented), over 40 patients suffered from improper knee implants and further injury, and the hospital underwent numerous costly claims. Medical translation, especially involving surgery instructions for a device or implant, should never be compromised with whatever is most convenient or least in cost. When it directly involves the well-being of others, professional translation service should be just that – high quality, professional translation.

The second example of mistranslation had even more devastating results, when a clinic in Epinal, France, was treating patients with prostate cancer. Medical software instructions for correct radiation dosage was in English, and the hospital carelessly decided to provide its own French to English translation.

Four patients died. As a direct result of negligent translation, they were over-dosed with radiation by medical staff. Others suffered severe illness due to radiation exposure. It’s shocking, and appalling that such negligence with proper medical and software translation services occurred, in a situation when patients’ lives were at stake – and when their health was critical to begin with. These types of consequences – however infrequent – should never happen, simply because those in charge decide to forego proper translation procedures.

There are so many more examples translation bloopers made by high profile, wealthy corporations and companies, that they could fill 50 more pages. Time and time again, business websites still rely upon Google Translate to provide website translation, or some other garbage automated translation “tool” (parenthesis around “tool,” because “tool” implies that it is something useful, when it’s a lot more like translating what someone says when they have mouth full of peanut butter). It has been proven and demonstrated over and over that automated translation convolutes and distorts linguistic content. While it is up website owners whether they care or not if their web content is translated into gobbledy-gook nonsense, for more professional, diplomatic or influential content – the most convenient or cheapest method of translation should never, ever be the priority for deciding upon a language translation service or source. Doing so has not only caused public embarrassment for many companies, but it’s cost some people their health, and some, even their lives.