6 little translation mistakes that made a big impact

Last Updated February 3, 2021

A US president expressing a little too much love for Poland. A holiday tradition turned on its head. A restaurant serving death meatballs. These are just a few absurd translation mistakes that prove language can play tricks on us—especially when we approach it too literally and ignore cultural context. Let’s explore some of history’s most memorable translation blunders.

1. A U.S. president’s love for Poland

Our review of troublesome and hilarious translation mistakes starts with a famous speech by President Carter in 1997.

When the US president visited Poland, he hired an interpreter that clearly didn’t have a great grasp of the Polish language.

When the president meant to say, “I left the United States this morning,” his interpreter turned it into “I left the United States, never to return.”

If that wasn’t bad enough, he then claimed he had come to Poland because “he was happy to grasp at Poland’s private parts,” instead of “he was happy to be in Poland.”

While this mistake had no severe consequences, it is considered one of the most embarrassing moments in the history of diplomacy.

2. $10 million of nothing

The HSBC bank had been using the slogan “Assume Nothing”—meaning anything and everything is possible at their bank. This expressed the company’s investment strategy and appealed to their English clients.

Once the brand decided to start a global campaign, their slogan was translated into “Do Nothing” in many languages. Of course, their audience understood this as “The bank that does nothing.”

As a result, HSBC had to spend another $10 million adjusting and adapting their campaign.

3. Nothing sucks like an Electrolux

Swedish brand Electrolux learned the hard way that international expansion requires thorough preparation—especially in the context of content translation and localization.

When the company started selling vacuum cleaners in the US, the branding campaign focused on promoting the suction power of the devices with a slogan: “Nothing sucks like an Electrolux.”

Although this was grammatically correct, it certainly didn’t pitch Electrolux as a quality product to their new American audience.

4. Gastronomical translation blunders

It’s all too common to find translation mistakes on restaurant menus—especially the English versions of their menus. Usually these errors are the result of literal translations by affordable internet translators.

That’s why one Polish restaurant’s customers could order “ice cream with lawyer,” and an Arabic hotel offered in their buffet a dish called “Paul is dead” instead of “meatballs.”

5. A Valentine’s role reversal

In the 1950s, chocolate company Morozoff wanted to promote Valentine’s Day tradition of men buying chocolate for women—something that had been successful in the US but hadn’t yet appeared in Japan.

Because of a translation error, the ad campaign advertised Valentine’s Day as a tradition when women bought chocolate for men. Luckily for Morozoff, this ad campaign was a huge success anyway.

Women still buy chocolate for men in every February 14th, with men buying chocolate for women a month later.

6. A life-or-death translation

Proper translation couldn’t be more important than it is in medicine.

In 1980, a Florida hospital admitted a patient in a coma. His Spanish-speaking family described his state as “intoxicado,” which was understood literally by paramedics and doctors as “intoxicated.”

A translator familiar with Cuban Spanish would have known that the family meant there was something wrong with what the patient ate or drank—it was not a case of drug or alcohol intoxication.

Unfortunately, because the doctors mistreated the patient, the hospital had to pay $71 million in damages to the patient.

Don’t make the same mistake

As you can see, literal and unprofessional translations can have very serious consequences in business, finances, and even health. That’s why it’s always worth using the services of a professional translation company.

To explore what Summa Linguae Technologies can do for your company, check out our translation and localization services.

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