Life-Changing Translation Mistakes

How much do you know about translating and are you aware of the astonishing impact it has on society? Find out some of the most memorable events influenced by translation mistakes.


  • St. Jerome and the Bible

As you may or may not know, St. Jerome is the patron saint of translators, librarians and encyclopedists, famous for spending 23 years of his life translating the Bible into Latin. But the interesting part is that he made a mistake while translating. The original Hebrew used the word keren  or qaran, which can mean either horn or a ray of light, the former being more common. This led to Moses suddenly being “horned” in the Bible, as well as in other works of art from that time, such as in Michelangelo’s Moses.


  • Medical Negligence

In 2004, several hospital staff were found guilty of manslaughter after improperly managing radiation machines, which were previously upgraded. Instruction manuals of those machines were in English, but the staff was French. There were mistakes in calculating the dosage, which led to 450 cancer patients being improperly treated over the course of 4 years, resulting in 7 patient deaths.


  • False Friends

A translation error once left a man paralyzed. In 1980, Willie Ramirez, Cuban-American baseball star, arrived at a hospital suffering from a headache, falling in and out of consciousness. His family described his condition as intoxicado, which is a false friend of intoxicated, the former meaning poisoned and the latter meaning affected by alcohol or drugs. The doctors treated Ramirez as if he were suffering a drug overdose, while failing to notice a hemorrhage. This left him paralyzed, and the hospital had to pay $71 million in damages. Translating and interpreting is not a joke!


  • Hiroshima Bombing

On that same note, it is believed that a translation mistake is actually the cause of the sad fate of Hiroshima. In 1945, the Allies sent a declaration demanding Japan’s unconditional surrender. The Prime Minister of Japan replied that he currently refrained from comments. He used the word mokusatsu, which can be interpreted in several different ways. Media and translators interpreted the word as “treat with silent contempt” or “ignore”, which was understood as an arrogant rejection or not worthy of a comment. Ten days later, the atomic bomb was launched on Hiroshima, instantaneously killing more than 70,000 people and 100,000 more as a result of radiation and destruction.


  • The Resurrecting Drink

On a lighter note, Pepsi had some branding issues due to translation. The slogan in the original language was “Come alive with Pepsi”, but comical translations led to a drop in sales when it was shipped off to China. The Chinese allegedly interpreted the slogan as “bringing your ancestors back from the dead”. The Chinese also translated KFC’s “Finger lickin’ good” slogan into “eat your fingers off”. This shows how precise and considerate one must be when coming up with advertisements and slogans.


  • Where No Man Has Gone Before

Finally, a translation mistake for which the entire science fiction genre is grateful. Astronomer Giovanni Virginio Schiaparelli started mapping the surface of Mars. This included seas, continents and… channels – which he called canali. This was then translated as canals, which implied that, not only that life on Mars existed, but also that its population is advanced enough to build canals. Some of the great early science fiction works were inspired by those canali.


Translation mistakes happen, but when the stakes are high, “choosing your words carefully” has a whole new meaning. It just goes to show that you shouldn’t joke around with translations, regardless of the seemingly frivolous project. Take every single translating project as seriously as possible!