Translation Mistakes That Cause Big Problems

Translation Mistakes That Cause Big Problems

(Last Updated On: May 21, 2024)

Some people think that knowing 2 different languages is the same as being able to offer translation services. Unfortunately, it is not true, because you have to possess a special skill to do so. Below are examples of Translation Mistakes and why translation can be as dangerous and serious as it can be.



In the world of translation, a single word can have monumental consequences, sometimes costing millions of dollars. The phrase “The Seventy-One-Million-Dollar Word” underscores the profound impact that accurate translation can have, especially in high-stakes environments like international business, diplomacy, and law. This essay explores the critical importance of precise translation, drawing on historical examples, technological advancements, and the vital role of professional translators in avoiding costly errors.

One of the most dramatic illustrations of the cost of translation errors involves an incident in the 1980s when a Japanese company and an American company were negotiating a deal worth $71 million. The misunderstanding arose from the incorrect translation of the word “mistakes” in the contract. The Japanese company believed they were agreeing to correct any “errors,” while the American company interpreted the term as referring to “defects” that would require complete product replacements. This discrepancy led to a lawsuit that eventually cost the Japanese company $71 million, illustrating how a single mistranslated word can lead to financial disaster.

In the realm of machine translation, despite significant technological advancements, the risk of errors remains high. Machine translators, which rely on algorithms and databases, often fail to capture the nuances of human language. For example, translating idiomatic expressions or industry-specific terminology can lead to misinterpretations. This is particularly evident in legal and medical translations, where precision is paramount. A mistranslation in a medical document, such as a dosage instruction, can have life-threatening consequences. Hence, human translators with specialized knowledge in these fields are indispensable for ensuring accuracy and safety.

During the 1980s, Willie Ramirez, who was only 18 years old, was admitted in a Florida hospital. Spanish was the only language spoken with his family and friends and they had to coordinate with the doctors. One of the hospital staff spoke 2 languages and translated the Spanish word ‘intoxicado’ as ‘intoxicated’. Therefore, he was given medications for intoxication that is of course not his real case. That is where the whole problem began. Only if a professional interpreter was on duty in the same hospital, Willie would not have been a quadriplegic since then. He was actually suffering from internal brain hemorrhage but the family thought the boy was food-poisoned. The hospital and the doctors were later charged with severe malpractice in which the family was paid Seventy One Million dollars as settlement. This is the most costly of the Translation Mistakes we know about.


President Carter once traveled to Poland in 1977 where the head of the State Department acquired the services of an interpreter. Unfortunately, the Russian interpreter who recognized a little in Polish interpreted “when I abandoned the US” and “your desires for the future” wrongly. You should see that not all words have the same meaning when used in a sentence or a phrase.


Soviet Prime Minister Nikita Khrushchev once said in his speech “we will bury you” as the interpreter has translated. It posted a threat to the US at that time wherein there could be a nuclear attack from Russia.


HSBC Bank launched a $10 million dollar campaign to patch-up the mistaken phrase “Do Nothing.” This was a result of the misconception in translation of “Assume Nothing,” which was the intention of HSBC then.


The Translation Mistakes of an article by Guan Xiandong of the News Service (China) brought panic to foreign exchange investors on the internet. The article was somehow speculative and casual but when interpreted, the translation became imposing and solid.


During the 1950s, chocolate companies had spread the idea of celebrating Valentine’s Day in Japan. Because of Translation errors, it resulted in women giving the chocolates instead of the other way around.

Translation Mistakes can have disastrous consequences for a business so you’d better use the services of a professional translation agency.



In the intricate world of translation, accuracy is paramount. Translators play a critical role in bridging language barriers, facilitating clear communication between speakers of different languages. However, mistakes in translation can lead to significant misunderstandings, diplomatic tensions, and even historical blunders. By examining notable errors and emphasizing the importance of accurate translation, we can highlight the pitfalls to avoid in this vital field.

One of the most infamous translation mistakes occurred during the Cold War, involving Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev. During a speech at the Polish embassy in 1956, Khrushchev’s phrase “We will bury you” was translated inaccurately. The intended message was closer to “We will outlast you,” implying the superiority of the Soviet system over capitalism. However, the incorrect translation suggested a direct threat of nuclear annihilation, exacerbating already high tensions between the Soviet Union and the United States. This example underscores the importance of precise language translation, particularly in diplomatic contexts where stakes are high.

In the realm of machine translation, inaccuracies are still prevalent despite technological advancements. Machine translators, while useful for quick translations, often struggle with context, idiomatic expressions, and cultural nuances. For instance, the phrase “bolts of conversations revolve” could easily be mistranslated by a machine, losing its intended meaning entirely. Human translators, with their ability to understand context and subtleties, are essential for producing accurate and culturally relevant translations. An experienced English-Spanish translator, for example, can navigate the complexities of both languages far more effectively than a machine relying solely on a Spanish dictionary.

Language learners, particularly those using resources like the Language Lover’s guide or Paul Noble’s methods, often rely on accurate translations to build their skills. Incorrect translations can lead to confusion and hinder the learning process. For instance, searching for “common courtesies” in Spanish-speaking countries requires not just a literal translation but an understanding of cultural norms and etiquette. Accessing millions of pronunciations and examples through reliable sources is crucial for learners to grasp the subtleties of the target language.

Professional translators must be vigilant to avoid mistakes that could lead to serious consequences. A bad translation in legal documents, medical information, or technical manuals can result in misunderstandings, safety hazards, and even legal liabilities. For businesses operating in Spanish-speaking countries, ensuring that marketing materials, user manuals, and legal contracts are accurately translated is vital to maintain credibility and avoid costly errors.

Historical examples further illustrate the impact of translation errors. Giovanni Schiaparelli, an Italian astronomer, once described channels on Mars using the Italian word “canali,” which was mistranslated into English as “canals.” This led to widespread speculation about intelligent life on Mars, demonstrating how a simple error can fuel misconceptions and myths. Similarly, the name of the iconic actress Elizabeth Taylor could be rendered inaccurately in different languages, leading to confusion about her identity and works.

In today’s globalized world, the demand for accurate translation services is higher than ever. From diplomatic conversations at Camp David to everyday interactions in San Francisco, the need for precise and culturally sensitive translations is evident. Professional translators, with their deep understanding of both source and target languages, play an indispensable role in ensuring effective communication. They prevent the pitfalls of incorrect translations, which can range from minor misunderstandings to significant diplomatic crises.

Avoiding translation mistakes requires a combination of skilled human translators, accurate reference materials, and an understanding of cultural contexts. Whether dealing with historical speeches, technical documents, or everyday conversations, the goal is to achieve clear and accurate communication. By learning from past errors and prioritizing quality in translation efforts, we can bridge language barriers and foster better understanding across cultures.

Knowing two languages is not the equal thing as understanding how to translate. Translation is a particular skill that professionals work hard to develop. The value of good translation is most obvious when things go opposite. Translation mistakes can affect quality considerably, and they can also cause significant problems and cost big money to fix. Remember: the only way to avoid possibly unfortunate translation mistakes is to use a right professional translation firm.


While most translation errors don’t affect international relationships, commerce, and personal lives the way these did, translation errors quite frequently cause a lot of pain and cost a lot of money to fix. The only method to avoid these kinds of mistakes is to trust your translation to a careful, experienced translation agency. They only use the most skilled translators for the clients’ projects and pass all translation projects through the verification processes, best practices, and optimizing processes.

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