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International Business: 'Airline pulp' and bad translations that can crash a plane

Published: Friday, April 8 2011 7:00 a.m. MDT

In 2009, French-speaking passengers aboard an Aer Lingus flight from Dublin to Paris panicked when a faulty translation warned them about an impending crash landing. According to the Daily Mail, about 20 minutes into the flight, an English announcement told passengers the plane was heading into turbulence, a rather routine occurrence. Unfortunately, the pre-recorded French version told passengers the plane was going to crash.

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Southern China Airways once distributed a snack package with the mysterious-sounding labelAirline Pulp” and no other description. Yum – sounds tasty! This mistranslated label will probably not get the airline nominated for any airline food awards, but it could be worse. Some in-flight mistranslations will make you laugh, but others will make you cry.

In 2009, French-speaking passengers aboard an Aer Lingus flight from Dublin to Paris panicked when a faulty translation warned them about an impending crash landing. According to the Daily Mail, about 20 minutes into the flight, an English announcement told passengers the plane was heading into turbulence, a rather routine occurrence. Unfortunately, the pre-recorded French version told passengers the plane was going to crash. You can imagine the emotional and terrified response of the misinformed French-speaking passengers, some of whom understandably began to weep.

After the crew realized the error and issued an apology, the Paris-bound passengers presumably recovered and went on with their lives. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said after a 2008 helicopter crash in France, which was suspected to be the result of an aircraft manual mistranslation.

Aviation journalist David Cenciotti reported that the crew was signaled by a cockpit light that the blade pressure had decreased. After temporarily landing for inspection and reviewing mistranslated manuals that gave incorrect instructions to solve the problem, the eight people on board mistakenly proceeded with their flight and all died in the resulting crash.

Several years ago, a coworker approached me with an opportunity to translate a manual for an airplane manufacturer. The project was large, and she really wanted to win the client. She prepared a price quote that involved having the work performed by translators who were also pilots and who specialized in this area. Because of the specialization and extra quality assurance required, the bid was by no means the cheapest we had ever submitted, but it was indeed competitive.

The client responded by informing us they wished they could use our services because of our quality control processes and our well-qualified linguists, but they felt they must save on costs and go with our competitor who submitted a quote for half the cost. If we could match the lower rate, we would get the deal. Knowing that doing so would necessitate cutting corners and lowering quality, we warned the client that “translation for those rates would crash the airplane,” and declined the risk. Months later, the same client returned and remorsefully asked us to repair the very poor translation produced by the cheaper and less qualified linguistic team.

The mistranslated airplane manual could have been as dangerously garbled for pilots and mechanics as the emergency exit instructions translated from Spanish to English that read, “Handcuff until the it collide and without loosing it pull the hatch.” How comfortable would you feel following those instructions after a crash landing?

Serious consequences can result from mistranslations in other industries too, such as the automotive, medical and pharmaceutical fields. Such potentially deadly missteps make the false alarm aboard the Aer Lingus flight seem quite trivial. Fortunately, many aircraft mistranslations are not nearly so frightening.

Some, like the “airline pulp” label, are actually quite humorous and nonsensical. A Russian airline once advertised “wide boiled aircraft for your comfort.” Air China has distributed moist towelettes with the English label, “wet turban needless wash.”

Other in-flight mistranslations are simple typos, like the Japanese customs forms that required passengers to declare a “fight” number. Air Koryo, the state-owned North Korean carrier, has labeled airsickness bags, “For your refuses.” Japan Airlines changed a message from reassuring to worrying simply by overusing quotation marks in the invitation to, “Please enjoy our ‘safe’ and ‘comfortable’ flight.”

Some of these mistranslations include correct spelling and grammar, but convey subtle implications only native speakers will notice. Instructions on a Korean flight read, “Upon arrival at Kimpo and Kimahie Airport, please wear your clothes,” perhaps to warn former Braniff passengers who had been told otherwise – “fly naked” – via a rather infamous Spanish radio mistranslation.

Whether a translation influences marketing or life-and-death user experiences, companies should ensure qualified, professional, native-speaking translators are used. A blundered marketing translation can kill revenue, but other mistranslations might just kill.

Adam Wooten is director of translation services at Lingotek. He also teaches a course on translation technology at BYU. E-mail: awooten@lingotek.com . Follow him on Twitter at AdamWooten..

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