Mistranslations and Misinterpretations 2

Commercial, Medical, Legal and Scientific Consequences of Mistranslation

My earlier blog on mistranslations and misinterpretations introduced the topic of the political misunderstandings and damage which may be caused by mistranslations, or alleged mistranslations, and media involvement. More evidence will be presented on these important issues in later articles. Other serious consequences may result from mistranslations in fields like commerce and advertising, law, medicine, science and technology. In these cases, the damage caused by the errors may at times lead to litigation.

Commerce and Advertising

A commonly told but false mistranslation story asserts that the car manufacturer Chevrolet was embarrassed by the poor sales in Mexico of its model named Nova (No va = ‘It doesn’t go’, in Spanish). The vital website http://www.snopes.com investigates and arbitrates on this and many other plausible and far-fetched urban legends. Nevertheless, mistranslations of product names or ‘How to Use’ instructions into other languages can cause serious commercial problems and expense, as Microsoft discovered in 1996. A furore arose in Mexico over a number of offensive definitions which had somehow survived the translating and editing processes and appeared in Microsoft’s Spanish language Thesaurus, equating, for example, indígena [native person, or (Mexican) Indian] with native, savage, and cannibal; Westerner with white, civilised; and lesbian with perverted. The outcry was so strong from the media representing Mexico’s 100 million inhabitants that the software giant was obliged to insert profuse apologies into Mexican newspapers and magazines, offering a hastily prepared update (minus the offending terms). The full page Spanish advertisement in the magazine Proceso (7 July1996) mentions terms like “serious errors”, “incorrect connotations which are offensive” and “we apologise for these errors”.

Although I cannot vouch for the following two examples, chosen as the most feasible of a somewhat mixed bunch posted on a translation website (www.languagetranslation.com/humorous_examples_pg1.html), se non sono veri, sono ben trovati. The first I hand over to Chinese (Mandarin?) translators for checking. The second one, also in need of verification by someone who has seen the original, at least appears linguistically feasible.

“In Taiwan, the translation of the Pepsi slogan “Come alive with the Pepsi Generation” came out as “Pepsi will bring your ancestors back from the dead.” Also, in Chinese, the Kentucky Fried Chicken slogan “finger-lickin’ good” came out as “eat your fingers off”.
When Parker Pen marketed a ball-point pen in Mexico, its ads were supposed to say “It won’t leak in your pocket and embarrass you.” However, the company mistakenly thought the Spanish word “embarazar” means “to embarrass”. Instead the ads said that, “it won’t leak in your pocket and make you pregnant”.”

Legal aspects

On 13 November 2007, during the long-running media pursuit of the case of the missing English girl in Portugal, reporter Fiona Govan filed a report on ‘Madeleine McCann: Possible translation errors’ in the UK Telegraph. (www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/1569143/Madeleine-McCann-Possible-translation-errors.html)

“Inconsistencies in the statements given by the McCanns and the group of friends who were dining with them at the time of Madeleine’s disappearance may have been caused by errors in translation, it emerged today.
Portuguese detectives investigating the case of the missing four-year-old have admitted that they are reassessing the original witness statements to look for inaccuracies in their translation.”

Evidence of the possible consequences of gross misinterpretation by unqualified court interpreters provided in an Internet forum report of an article in The Scotsman (30 October 2007).
(Source: http://www.libertyforum.org/showflat.php?Cat=&Board=news_culture&Number=295852989)
“SCORES of convicted foreign criminals could walk free because of the appalling quality of official translators in Scottish courts, a leading linguist has warned.
Alena Linhartova, who has interpreted in Scotland for 20 years, said people were effectively being “pulled off the street” to translate in a growing number of court cases.
This has called into question the reliability of evidence and raised serious doubts about whether foreign nationals, particularly from eastern Europe, can expect a fair trial in this country.”

Misinterpretation in medical situations

An article promoting the need for more funds to employ professional interpreters in US hospitals offers an example of the potential high cost of mistranslations in medical lawsuits. The following case is alleged to have been brought by a patient. (The result of the case is not given.)

“A $71 million lawsuit against a Florida hospital began when medical staff misinterpreted a patient’s symptoms. When a patient explained that he felt nauseous (‘intoxicado’, which has several meanings), they assumed he was under the influence of drugs or alcohol. The patient was eventually diagnosed with a brain aneurysm and became quadriplegic.” (http://healthlink.mcw.edu/article/1031002276.html)

Science and Technology

Almost unbelievable is the following excerpt from an account by CNN television of a 1999 Space exploration disaster caused by what appears to be a failure to translate basic English technical specifications into metrical terms. (http://edition.cnn.com/TECH/space/9911/10/orbiter.02/)

“WASHINGTON (AP) — Failure to convert English measures to metric values caused the loss of the Mars Climate Orbiter, a spacecraft that smashed into the planet instead of reaching a safe orbit, a NASA investigation concluded Wednesday. […]
An investigation board concluded that NASA engineers failed to convert English measures of rocket thrusts to newton, a metric system measuring rocket force. One English pound of force equals 4.45 newtons. A small difference between the two values caused the spacecraft to approach Mars at too low an altitude and the craft is thought to have smashed into the planet’s atmosphere and was destroyed.”

Armand A. Gagnon, of Champollion Translations (www.linguatics.com/thesilentway/) offers the following historical example as ‘One of the Greatest Mistranslations of all Time’:

“Back in 1877, Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli had observed the planet Mars through his modest 19th Century telescope and in his astronomy book, mentioned the “channels” (dried waterbeds) on the surface of the red planet. In his native Italian, “channels” is canali. When the wealthy Bostonian amateur astronomer Percival Lowell read a translation of Schiaparelli’s book and canali was translated as “canals” in English (implying a network on Mars created by intelligent beings), a life-on-Mars mania and madness then ensued well into the 20th Century. …”

Yet another anecdotal lesson is offered in an informative essay to prospective clients on the website of another translation agency. The context of the article is a warning about the significant (and inconvenient) errors which may result from a translator’s inadequate knowledge of the many differences (often subtle) between British and American English. The lesson would apply to translation from and into English. (Source: http://www.mcelroytranslation.com/languages/english/)

“To publish any kind of household appliance manual and constantly refer to the “earth” instead of the “ground” in talking about electrical connections could lead to a product liability suit. I am aware of a lawsuit that occurred when a transformer blew up in the United States that had been manufactured in Europe, because the instruction manual had been translated in China into what the Chinese fondly believe to be English (which English, we do not know) and the instructions for attaching the surge arrestors were so poorly translated that the surge arrestors were wrongly attached and the whole device blew up, at a cost of five million dollars to the owners of the transformer.”

(to be continued)

See also: Mistranslations. Introduction

This later blog article on fluency in foreign languages may also be of interest to some readers.

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One Comment on “Mistranslations and Misinterpretations 2”


  1. Thank you for the interesting post. Today I read a news item about a Japanese publisher who had to suffer a great loss due to the use of machine translation. You can read it here:

    http://tinyurl.com/k4bxax9


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