Last week, we reviewed some of the top intercultural blunders of 2011. Throughout the year, many businesses and governments have also learned the hard way that translation errors can be costly and incredibly embarrassing. Perhaps translation missteps were destined to fill the year — in Vietnam, 2011 is the Year of the Cat, not the year of the Rabbit like elsewhere in Asia, and some allege that the discrepancy is the result of an old translation error. Consequently, some might call this the year of mistranslation.
Like the top intercultural blunders of 2011, most of these linguistic missteps are cringeworthy, and a few are humorous. All are good reminders to take appropriate precautions when working in another language. Hopefully, a little extra care will help make 2012 a year of great translation successes!
In no particular order, here is my list of the Top 10 translation blunders of 2011, together with honorable mention of a few similar gaffes from elsewhere in the world that did not make the list.
Nokia chose the name Lumia for its new phone knowing full well it was an obscure Spanish word for a lady of the night. The cellular company decided to select the name anyway when research showed most Spanish speakers were unaware of the old meaning. When the press discovered the old definition, however, the resulting buzz spread worldwide. In this case, since the meaning has changed, any publicity may possibly be good publicity.
Honorable mention elsewhere in the world: Other companies encountered similar brand name challenges this year. For instance, some have questioned whether Apple’s Siri or the UK’s Pret a Manger monikers would be problematic in Japan and France. Thanks to a little homework, the Royal Canadian Air Force has avoided a similar naming gaffe.
In the latest issue of the Dutch magazine ‘Jackie,’ an article referred to singer Rihanna with a combination of racist and sexist slurs. The article, with the exception of the most offensive words, was written in Dutch, and the magazine claimed it did not fully understand the meaning of those words before publishing them. This editor has apologized and resigned over the incident. This case is a good reminder to be careful when using other words that English has borrowed from foreign languages.
Honorable mention elsewhere in the world: As mentioned in the top intercultural blunders of 2011, Vogue Italia also tried to blame mistranslation for inappropriately described “slave” earrings, but the offending word was also found in the original text.
Are Chinese police really never around when you need them? In a failed attempt to be helpful, one public sign in southeast central China read, “difficult to find police.” According to the University of Pennsylvania’s entertaining Language Log Blog, it should have read, “If you have difficulty, find the police” or “If you are in trouble, call the police.”
Honorable mention elsewhere in the world: Other public service announcements also saw challenges in translation this year. One Icelandic geophysicist who explained that nothing unusual was happening with local volcano was mistranslated as predicting a disastrous eruption, causing unnecessary panic and concern. After an East Coast blizzard, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg was criticized less for his choice of words and more for his peculiar pronunciation; however, his valiant efforts and his good sense of humor are certainly commendable.
A key conversation discrediting the hotel worker in the Dominique Strauss-Kahn case was allegedly mistranslated. That conversation and other factors led to dismissal of the charges against Strauss-Kahn.
Honorable mention elsewhere in the world: Other cases have also hinged on the accuracy of translation. A rape suspect in Arkansas and the world’s “most wanted” Nazi war crimes suspect have been freed partially based on purported translation errors.
Earlier in December, Nintendo stock dropped 2 percent in a single day after key game designer Shigeru Miyamoto, creator of Super Mario Bros, The Legend of Zelda, and other famous video games, was reported to be retiring. However, the retirement report was purportedly the fault of a mistranslated interview or misunderstood sarcasm.
Honorable mention elsewhere in the world: Earlier in the year, when investment analysts asked Nintendo CEO Satoru Iwata for his first impression of competitor Sony’s PlayStation Vita, he initially declined to comment. Apparently, Iwata had a bad experience just one year prior when his first impression of Apple’s iPad was allegedly misrepresented as an insult.
Dermatologists of the world were shocked to hear that Brazilian model Gisele Bundchen had supposedly labeled all sunblock as “poison” in a press conference. For a brief moment, the world shunned the supermodel as a bad influence on the health of young girls everywhere. However, Bundchen and her publicist denied that report, claiming there was a mistranslation and asserting she does indeed use sunscreen but avoids certain synthetic ingredients.
Elsewhere in the World: Since Brazilians are such huge soccer fans and amazing soccer players — and since I have not yet found a more pertinent place to mention this — it should be noted that the world of soccer continues to suffer from one mistranslation drama after another after another.
In a less well known — but humorous — incident, a business magazine ironically added Google mistranslations to an article I wrote about translation, causing the article, titled “Lost in Translation,” to become self-descriptive. My article warned about the difficulty of Chinese translation, the importance of professional human translation, and the dangers of misusing machine translation; however, magazine staff paid no attention to the warnings and inserted an unauthorized Chinese mistranslation of the article title that did not mean “Lost in translation,” but instead read “Lost Tokyo.”
Honorable mention elsewhere in the world: With similar irony, companies worldwide display links to multilingual versions of their websites, but Internet users can not always find or understand the relevant links that are mistakenly displayed in languages other than their own. In other words, the link to the translation oddly has no translation. For example, some website links to their respective English versions are spelled out in Japanese characters and vice versa.
Hundreds of mistranslations have delayed the approval of Korean free trade agreements with both the European Union and the United States. With more than a thousand pages in each document, the race to approve these deals has apparently caused translators to rush a little too quickly and sacrifice quality. Ironically, the pressure the translators felt to rush has caused delays beyond the time a quality translation would have required.
Honorable mention elsewhere in the world: Other diplomatic interactions have been rendered awkward by poor translations. For example, Malaysia was embarrassed that a mistranslated banner welcomed a Chinese delegation. Other translation errors have caused political tensions in Turkey. After nearly three years, the infamous 2009 mistranslation of a Russian “reset” button still comes up in the news about U.S.-Russian relations.
A publisher recalled the Italian versions of a catechism book for young people after discovering a translation error that implied that the Vatican approved of contraception.
Honorable mention elsewhere in the world: The Associated Press notes that the Vatican’s own in-house publisher made a similar mistake the previous year. On a positive note this year, the protestant world celebrated the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible.
Ballot translation errors seem to pop up with every election. This year, in Cuyahoga County, Ohio, the "yes" and "no" ovals associated with two of three state issues appeared to be missing from under the English explanations and appeared only in separate columns under the Spanish translations. This mix-up caused considerable voter confusion.
Honorable mention elsewhere in the world: A group opposing Mitt Romney’s presidential candidacy is running an ad that shows Romney speaking in French with fake English subtitles. DeathandTaxesMag.com has called this “the most trite attack of the season.”