A Comedy of Errors: Looking at Some Translation Mistakes

  |  June 13, 2018

Looking at some funny translation mistakes.

Translation mistakes can lead to disastrous consequences, but sometimes they’re just funny. We’ve all seen the hilarious mishaps when signs are mistranslated by well-meaning yet unprofessional linguists:

  • Hotel in Acapulco: “The Manager has Personally Passed All the Water Served Here”
  • Sign on a machine in China: “Please don’t touch yourself. Let us help you try out. Thanks!”
  • Hotel lobby, Bucharest: “The lift is being fixed for the next day. During that time we regret that you will be unbearable.”
  • In a New Zealand restaurant: “Open seven days a week, and weekends too.”
  • Hotel elevator, Paris: “Please leave your values at the front desk.”
  • Outside Paris dress shop: “Dresses for street walking.”
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But what about when serious attempts at professional translation have goofs? Funny translation errors are only funny when they happen to someone else. Here’s a sample of some of the best (or worst) translation mistakes.

Translation Mistakes: The “Canali” and the First Martians

Here is one of history’s funny translation errors. In 1877, Giovanni Virginio Schiaparelli, director of the Brera Observatory in Milan, began creating maps and giving names to areas on Mars with the help of a large telescope. He named the “seas” and “continents” (dark and light areas) he found with names from historical and mythological sources.

He saw channels on Mars and called them “canali.” Canali means channels, but it was mistranslated into “canals.” This implied that intelligent life existed on Mars and had dug canals between bodies of water. Because the Suez Canal had just been completed in 1869, there was widespread interest in these artificial structures that existed on Mars.

It gets better. In 1894, a wealthy astronomer from Boston named Percival Lowel made his first observations of Mars from a private observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona. He concluded the canals were real and ultimately mapped hundreds of them.

Lowell confirmed that the straight lines he observed were artificial canals created by intelligent Martians and he further surmised they were built to carry water from the polar caps to the equatorial regions.

He published his first book on Mars in 1895 with a great number of illustrations. Over the next 20 years, Lowell published two more popular books advancing his ideas. (Source: NASA Website)

Translation Mistakes: President Carter’s Love for Poland

President Jimmy Carter suffered from numerous translation mistakes while on an official state visit to Poland in 1977. Here are just a few of the funny translation errors made by the Polish translator hired for Carter by the U.S. State Department:

  • In a speech soon after his arrival, President Carter stated that he wanted to learn more about the Polish people’s “desires for the future.” His interpreter chose words that made it sound like Carter was expressing inappropriate sexual desires.
  • The same interpreter translated Carter’s words “I left the United States this morning.” into “I left the United States, never to return.”
  • Time Magazine reported that even the innocent statement by Carter that he was happy to be in Poland became a statement about being “happy to grasp at Poland’s private parts.”
  • Even when using a different interpreter, his woes didn’t end. While giving a toast at a state banquet later in the trip, Carter delivered first one line and then another, only to be met with silence. The new interpreter couldn’t understand the President’s English, and so remained silent. (Source: BBC Website)

Translation Mistakes: Who Will Bury Whom?

Here is an example of when translation mistakes aren’t so funny. At the worst possible time for translation mistakes, an important one further chilled the temperature of the Cold War in 1956. Then Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev was famously (or infamously) interpreted as saying “We will bury you.”

The statement was made to Western ambassadors then present in Moscow who were attending a reception at the Polish embassy. The phrase became synonymous with Khrushchev and Soviet expansionist policies.

In its true context, Khrushchev’s words would have been more accurately translated “Whether you like it or not, history is on our side. We will dig you in.” His statement meant that Communism would outlast capitalism, which would destroy itself from within. It referred to a passage in Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto that argued “What the bourgeoisie therefore produces, above all, are its own grave-diggers.”

Most agree it was still not a statement intended to calm tensions, but it was not the overtly hostile statement everyone believed at the time and long afterward. Khrushchev himself clarified his statement later while making a speech in Yugoslavia on August 24, 1963. (Source: CIA Library)

Avoiding Translation Mistakes

It’s not funny when your business encounters translation mistakes that could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars or your reputation. As seen above, even slight word changes and misunderstanding the source can lead to catastrophic errors. In the world of business, such errors are costly.

International Language Services provides highly-specialized, document translation services for manufacturing, medical device, and industrial organizations that far exceeds the basic translation services of other translation firms. Our team includes skilled, native-speaking translators with specific knowledge of the industry for which they translate.

These professionals use state-of-the-art translation memory software and their knowledge of the source language to deliver natural, accurate, and technically precise translation services.  

Need document translation services but want to protect yourself against costly translation mistakes? ILS has been providing exceptional translation services for more than 35 years. Contact us today to get started!