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 »  Articles Overview  »  Miscellaneous  »  Translation or 'The Art of Goofing Up'
 »  Articles Overview  »  Art of Translation and Interpreting  »  Translator Education  »  Translation or 'The Art of Goofing Up'

Translation or 'The Art of Goofing Up'

By Oliver Simões | Published  04/16/2011 | Miscellaneous , Translator Education | Recommendation:
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Oliver Simões
United States
English to Portuguese translator
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In today's global business environment, the stakes are high. From ridiculous headlines to awkward or sloppy use of the local language, translation mistakes can be costly, embarrassing, and even disastrous. - From the American Translators Association website

For those of us who are professional translators, the following examples might sound all too familiar. However, as glaring as translation mistakes may be to the human eye, they will most likely pass the scrutiny of machine translators, which have been fast multiplying since the invention of Babel Fish.

While the Internet presents a wealth of information at our fingertips, it also contains a lot of "bad stuff". Sometimes I can't believe what I'm reading online and my first impulse is to tell the smart aleck, "Go back to school" or "Learn your ABCs before posting nonsense." I know that this may sound arrogant; however, it makes no difference what I think or what you think. The fact is that the Internet will continue to be an experimental lab where the wheat and the chaff live side by side. The secret lies in our ability to tell them apart. And so is the case with translation:

In a case study of Language QA at Lionbridge, a poor English translation of a user guide recommended putting an “aluminium” coffeemaker into the microwave! The translation was riddled with grammatical mistakes. (Source:

In another example, a warning sign posted on the Today Translations website reads in Chinese, "Beware of dogs. Survivors will not be compensated". In English translation, survivors will be "prosecuted". reports that a Chinese sign bearing “No smoking or fire” was translated to English as “Do burning.”

Translation mistakes often create a negative image on the mind of the well-informed reader, especially when they are displayed in conspicuous signs (sometimes in boldface and capital letters). The LA Times website has a whole gallery of mistranslated signs. In one of them, hotel guests are warned “not to live [their] values out of the safe box.” In another, customers are encouraged to buy “White Fish Sand” for “whitefish sandwich”.

A poor translation may stir racial/cultural/religious sensitivities, sometimes pitching people against one another:

A woman holding a sign showing the N-word

A black woman from Toronto holds a label showing a racist color term that was used to identify a sofa made in China. The "N" word sparked a great deal of controversy among the black community in Canada. Some blamed the Chinese for outright racism against Blacks. The Chinese manufacturer was quoted by Associated Press as saying, "we got the definition from a Chinese-English dictionary. We've been using the dictionary for 10 years". (Source: Witiger)

In a September 7, 2008 news story The Telegraph reported that the continuation of the Russia-Georgia conflict appeared to be caused by the poor translation of a single word from English to Russian: "the Russian translation of the [cease-fire] agreement (...) speaks of security 'for' South Ossetia and Abkhazia. The English version speaks of security 'in' the two areas.

In its edition of July 20, 2006 the New England Journal of Medicine cautioned that "inadequate communication can have tragic consequences", as reported in this case in which misinterpretation of a single word led to a patient's delayed care and preventable quadriplegia:

A Spanish-speaking 18-year-old had stumbled into his girlfriend’s home, told her he was “intoxicado,” and collapsed. When the girlfriend and her mother repeated the term, the non–Spanish- speaking paramedics took it to mean “intoxicated”; the intended meaning was “nauseated.” After more than 36 hours in the hospital being worked up for a drug overdose, the comatose patient was reevaluated and given a diagnosis of intracerebellar hematoma with brain-stem compression and a subdural hematoma secondary to a ruptured artery. (The hospital ended up paying a $71 million malpractice settlement.)

Sometimes, a bad translation may be amusing in the way it presents ideas both in terms of form and content. This is especially true of translations rendered by a machine (e.g. Google Translator). Try translating a phrase from English to any other language and back to English. You'll be surprised!

The Mexican saying, "El que no enseña no vende" (literally, He who doesn't show [his goods] won't sell [them]) was rendered by Google Translator as "He who does not sell shows." WordMagicSoft, on the other hand suggests, "If you don't tell you can't sell." Both searches were performed on 3/31/11 and neither translation carries the double meaning of the Spanish original.

Spanish speakers make a distinction between pez (live fish) and pescado (dead fish). Now consider this passage: "José likes fishing. Yesterday he caught a big fish. He took the fish home and his wife made 'fish à la provençale'." Google translated it as, "José le gusta la pesca. Ayer atrapó un pez grande. Tomó el hogar de peces y su esposa se 'pescado a la provenzal'." Besides the awkward grammar, the Spanish translation reveals semantic nonsense (literally, "José likes fishing. Yesterday he trapped a big [live] fish. He took the home of [live] fishes and his wife herself '[dead] fish à la provençale'." Babel Fish (no pun intended) was no smarter than Google in its gibberish: "José tiene gusto de pescar. Él cogió ayer un pescado grande. Él tomó los pescados a casa y su esposa hizo 'la provençale del à de los pescados'." Babel Fish suggested José caught a dead fish, took the "fishes" home and his wife made provençale "of the to the" fishes!

Here's another one: A TV viewer from Brazil reported that a nature show on NetGeo had broadcast, “sabemos muito pouco sobre o assoalho do oceano” to mean we know very little about the ocean floor. In Brazilian Portuguese assoalho is used in reference to the floor of a house. In an ocean sense it should have been fundo do mar (literally, the bottom of the ocean).

Sometimes, examples of translation malpractice defy our sense of credibility, leaving us wondering whether they are factual or just a figment of someone's imagination. The following three examples are from

The Dairy Association's huge success with the campaign "Got Milk?" prompted them to expand advertising to Mexico. It was soon brought to their attention the Spanish translation read "Are you lactating?"

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."

From a brochure of a car rental firm in Tokyo: "When passengers of foot heave in sight, tootle the horn. Trumpet him melodiously at first, but if he still obstacles your passage, then tootle him with vigor." has a collection of bad English translations on international signs. Here are some:

Outside a Hong Kong tailor shop: LADIES MAY HAVE A FIT UPSTAIRS.
Outside a Paris dress shop: DRESSES FOR STREET WALKING.
In an advertisement by a Hong Kong dentist: TEETH EXTRACTED BY THE LATEST METHODISTS.

The CBS News website has an anecdote about one of their anchormen as he interviewed former Russian president Boris Yeltsin:

60 Minutes' Mike Wallace, known for his tough interviewing style, drew a sharp rebute from Boris Yeltsin - thanks to a translator's error. The confusion arose when Wallace asked Yeltsin if he had a "thin skin" when it came to public criticism, but the translation had Wallace describing Yeltsin as a "thick-skinned hippopotamus."

Yeltsin was not amused. "An experienced journalist like yourself," Yeltsin said, "should express himself in a more civilized fashion. But this may be the translator's fault, and if so, he is the hippopotamus!"

There is no question that translation accuracy is important in our lives. A good translator translates a message or text not for him/herself, but for the reader or audience that the message is intended for. In doing so, he or she must take into account not only the readability of the message, but the author's intended meaning and the educational/cultural background of the message recipient.

A French translation of the technical specs for a Toshiba laptop computer advertised on left the screen size in inches and un-translated. Since France is on the metric system, a metric alternative might be helpful for those who don't understand inches.

Reader “J.R.” lodged a complaint on a consumer protection website against publisher Alta Books for the bad translation of a book on website optimization. He suspects the entire book was machine translated. The reverse translation of the quoted paragraph in Portuguese reads: "I recited opinion, conjecture, perspective and authority. For others, I said it was a Brave New World and that despite [the fact] that the jury might be out, the criterion was obvious. I created 10,000 Power Pointe presentations (?) showing the good, the bad and the ugly in an attempt to lessen the quantity and regret of aggravating encounters with electronic brochures loaded with a bad electronic calligraphy." (Source:

In another instance, an ad snippet from the portal of Universo Online in Brazil reflects an increasing Anglicization of the Portuguese language in that country. In a 10-word “translation” five words were direct borrowings from English. Animal de estimação was rendered as pet, loja became shop, and desconto de 60% became 60% off. Two other English words (i.e. online and frete - from freight) have already been assimilated into Brazilian Portuguese.

The following selection begs our attention. Even though it's not a translation per se, it's well worth mentioning. It was found on a translation agency’s website advertising Portuguese translation services. It speaks volumes in terms of semantic and grammatical inaccuracies.

In fact, our Certified Portuguese Translator and Portuguese Certified Translator coach our Portuguese to English Certified Translation and English to Portuguese Certified translation group in the Portuguese Translation Certification and Portuguese Certification Translation. All Portuguese to English Certified Translation and English to Portuguese translations delivered to our clients are certified by our Certified Portuguese to English translator by which is a Native English translator.
Rest assure that none of our certified Portuguese to English translations had never been refused or declined by the Department of Homeland Security (Immigration), legal courts, or universities.

Translation mistakes abound on- and off-line. Some of them may be funny, others may cause us to raise our eyebrows. Some are produced by machines, others by human error. But the undeniable fact is that, overall, they seem to have a more negative impact than positive.

Translating is a special skill that requires more than just knowing the language. The solution to avoid goofy and erroneous translations (and the undesirable consequences) is to hire translators that have a proven record of their translation and language capabilities, preferably someone who knows the field(s) in which they are translating. Unfortunately, (and fortunately for us), machine translators are a long way to go!

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