The Most Famous Examples of Misinterpretation

By Translator Thoughts
In Translation Techniques
Apr 29th, 2014

Lost in Translation – The Most Famous Examples of Misinterpretation

Guest post


One of the most important aspects of business, politics – in fact life in general – is effective communication. Of course this can be difficult when dealing with someone who doesn’t speak your language, which is where professional and experienced translation agencies like Take Note Ltd come in.

However, history is littered with examples of people and organisations who have failed to secure the services of translators who understand completely the nuances of a certain language perfectly. Here are some of the most famous examples.


Jimmy Carter Propositions Poland

You know that moment on a first date when someone gets a bit ahead of themselves and it’s all very awkward?

On a state trip to Poland in 1977, US President Jimmy Carter explained how he wanted to learn more about the Polish people’s desires for the future, both politically and economically. Unfortunately Carter’s Polish translator, a freelance linguist named Steven Seymour, translated it into words that suggested he wanted to understand their carnal desires.

If that wasn’t enough, Seymour also translated Carter talking about returning back to America into him saying that he had abandoned America. Compounding the problem, Seymour also used numerous Russian words – a major folly in a nation who were largely anti-Russia.


Freudian Slip?

When it comes to marketing, the nature of your catchphrase or slogan can be key to getting across your core brand values. However, if you operate within a global marketplace like banking group HSBC does, you need to be sure that your catchphrase is translated appropriately.

In 2009 HSBC had to spend $10 million on a rebranding campaign after their slogan “Assume Nothing” was translated as “Do Nothing” in several countries.


Role Reversal

Sometimes mistranslations can cause more than just embarrassment, but have a permanent impact on the very culture of a nation.

Back in the 1950s, chocolate companies began encouraging couples in Japan to start celebrating Valentine’s Day, but a mistranslation from one company made it seem like the idea was for women to give chocolates to men! This practice is continued to this day, with men doing the same for their partners on March 14.


We Come in Peace

The idea of ‘Martians’, or that Mars at some time or another harboured life is a common theme throughout science fiction, and it was all down to Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli.

In 1877 Schiaparelli discovered ‘canali’, or canals on Mars’ surface. Of course canals are a manmade phenomenon, so was this proof that a civilisation once existed on Mars? It is an idea that has inspired countless works of fiction, except that it is all based on a mistranslation. ‘Canali’ doesn’t actually mean ‘canals’ at all, but ‘channels’ or ‘trenches’ – completely naturally occurring terrain.


Mistranslation leads to the death of about… oh, 250,000 people

The debate over whether the USA was right to drop the atom bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki often centres on the argument that countless soldiers would have lost their lives in a conflict with the seemingly un-surrendering Japan.

Even when the US issued the Potsdam Declaration – demanding total surrender else complete destruction – the Japanese government were unwavering. At least, that’s what the Americans thought.

Following persistent pressure for a response to the Potsdam Declaration, Japanese Premier Kantaro Suzuki called a news conference in which he effectively told the reports “No comment. We’re still thinking about it.” However the word he used for ‘no comment’ was ‘mokusatsu’, which can also mean “we’re ignoring in contempt.”

Had Suzuki made himself that little bit clearer, one of history’s darkest moments may never have happened.


This guest blog was written by John Rooney.

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2 Responses to “The Most Famous Examples of Misinterpretation”

  1. Paula Tizzano Fernández says:

    I think this article could get more leverage if sources were properly mentioned. Could you please share your sources?

    Also, some conclusions seem a bit simplistic, like assuming that America may have never dropped the bomb if a word had been translated differently. For irresponsible that the bomb dropping may have been from the perspective of the respect toward life, such crucial war decisions are never taken on the basis of the translation of a single isolated word.

    In this regard, the mistranslation case may be true, but the inferences suggested from it seem to be a bit far-fetched.

    • Hi Paula,
      Thanks for your comment.
      Unfortunately this is a guest post so I don’t have the sources. I also agree on your second point: we didn’t want to imply that the bomb has been dropped following a mistranslation. We just wanted to highlight how mistranslations can happen in any fields and any contexts.
      Did you come across some other interesting example of mistranslation?