Conveying messages can seem to be a simple task. But when international waters are crossed, translation mishaps have had stakes beyond letters to actual lives.
In this list are some of the most controversial marketing accidents performed in our time and some of the grimmest mistranslation tales and misunderstanding. This proves to be a testament not to belittle how language affects us on a daily basis, as one small mistake can cause catastrophic repercussions in human history.
- Japan’s Valentine’s Day Tradition
Have you ever wondered why Valentine’s Day is just as much a holiday in Japan in relation to their other cultural holidays? The root of the craze is traced in 1968 where chocolate companies started mimicking Western traditions and customs. An apparent mistranslation in terms of context arose when board execs thought that Valentine’s Day was done in Western states where men received gifts from women rather than the opposite at the time. Marketing campaigns, unaware of the original tradition of men giving chocolates to women they sought after, started the idea of “giri-choco” or obligation chocolate which implied that chocolate-giving was customary for women to give to their significant others in Japan which then prompted thousands of Japanese women to follow on the supposed Western custom.
If you thought this was a mistranslation with a happy ending for the companies, it wasn’t so much with their male customers. To catch up with the trend, later on in 1970, companies started to market March 14th as a follow-up to boost sales and labeled it “White Day” as a way for those who received chocolates on Valentine’s Day to give back the chocolates they received in the form of candies and biscuits. But as years moved on from confectionaries, “White Day” has grown past simple treats to expensive gifts and jewelry. Blame marketing and mistranslation for the birth of two unintended cultural trends that persist even to this day.
- Company Controversy
With more and more issues reflecting on society’s substandard understanding of subtext and recurring acts of taking things out of context, several media personalities are keen on the words that they say whether in person or through social media. One misstep can cause a drop in trust, marketability, and allegiance in terms of what a person represents or what that person’s affiliation is.
Back in 2011, Shigeru Miyamoto, creator of the world renowned Super Mario Bros video game franchise and unofficial mascot of Nintendo, was falsely reported to be in early retirement. After reports of him announcing his retirement, he has been asked after the incident whether or not the reports were true. “Inside our office, I’ve been recently declaring, I’m going to retire, I’m going to retire,” said Miyamoto. The statement was due to one of Miyamoto’s occasional gags and jokes which he is known for in the video game industry. He was apparently talking about his position in the company, and not about quitting the industry altogether, but the spread of the mind-blowing news eventually caused Nintendo to lose two percent in stocks in fear of Nintendo having a drop in quality and performance as a video game company with the loss of one of its greatest assets.
- $71 million for a mistake
A mistranslation can cause a grave effect as is in the case of medicinal mishaps. Willie Ramirez was in a comatose state when he was admitted to a hospital in Florida in 1980. His parents were trying to describe the situation of their child to his attending physician, who unfortunately could not understand a word of Spanish. A bilingual staff of the hospital began translating the parents’ words to the doctors.
The mishap came from just one word, “intoxicado”, which was aptly translated by the staff as “intoxicated”. However, the actual case of Ramirez was that he was “poisoned” which made a world of a difference in terms of the drugs that were administered to him. The family was trying to say that Willie was poisoned, not in a state of drug overdose. The mishandling of the situation caused Ramirez to be quadriplegic by the time he woke from his coma. The hospital was then charged for a malpractice settlement of over $71 million to compensate the permanent damages to Willie.
- Medical Malpractice
In 2004, several hospital staff were sentenced with manslaughter after inappropriately treating over 450 cancer patients at a hospital in France in the course of over four years where 7 patients died. The mistreatment was due to improper management of the radiation machines that were upgraded to new ones. The instruction booklets of the new machines were in English, and the hospital staff were French. Due to mistranslation the doses of radiation were miscalculated.
Jean-Francois Sztermer and Michel Aubertel were sentenced for being involved in the mistreatment of the patients. Much of the blame fell on the radiologist, Joshua Anah, who was not only charged with manslaughter, but with destroying evidence and continuing to deny the charges.
Reports showed that patients received 20% more radiation that what was recommended due to an error in calibrating the machine. Though Anah admitted to the ‘human error’ that has occurred resulting in various medical complications to their treated patients, the court pushed through with the charges considering the gravity of the situation, going on to be known as one of the most serious medical mistranslations to occur in France.
- Scandalous Suggestions
Branding can be a difficult issue when it comes to transferring slogan, logo, and name past international territories and contexts. One major example of unprecedented branding scandals is the Nokia Lumia’s title. Choosing to rebrand its name in the face of major competitors Samsung and Apple, the company released Nokia Lumia, which as few of us know is of Spanish descent. The word traditionally means a mistress of the night, but it didn’t stop the phone company from choosing it as its newest flagship brand for its potential resurgence.
Assuming that the word’s meaning would’ve gotten lost in translation, Nokia took a step that could be considered neither good nor bad. The Spanish press was easy to catch on to the publicity that could be garnered in scandalizing the phone company as it sent a worldwide message publicizing the traditional meaning of the word. Whether it was intentional or not, the ruckus that was generated managed to put Nokia on the front page for a few weeks. At the end of the day, maybe there’s no such thing as good publicity or bad publicity.
- Pepsi’s Reincarnating Product
Another branding issue comes with Pepsi’s “Pepsi Generation” slogans. Though many sources depict its roots in China, other sources reveal it to have been of German mistranslation, while a few others tell of a different origin. But the urban legend goes that Pepsi’s slogan at that time encouraged consumers to buy their product as it “helps ‘em come alive”. Hilarious mistranslations of the slogan prompted to a drop in sales when it was shipped off to China.
The Chinese apparently read the translation as “bringing your dead ancestors back to life.” Though some might think of it as viral advertising, it was not Pepsi’s intention at all. The slogan’s key thrust of “Come alive with Pepsi”, a word for word translation of the slogan could just as easily turn into “this will raise the dead”, showing the precision and care that must be taken into consideration to avoid multi-million dollar marketing mistakes.
- We Will Bury You
The Cold War was in iffy time for the two warring states. Instead of using straight out violence, the two states were in a passive aggressive stalemate that was as rigid as their political beliefs.
In 1956, Nikita Khrushchev stopped the silence between states by saying “We will bury you” aimed at Western ambassadors during a reception in Moscow hosted at the Polish embassy. The iconic phrase proved to be a stalwart example of the Soviets’ stalwart iron curtain showing both confidence and aggression, which was then publicized out of control internationally. Fortunately, these words were not really meant to be an attack on the Western state.
The context of the words was much closer to “Whether you like it or not, history is on our side. We will dig you in” implying his stand on Communism vs Capitalism which is in itself a term taken from Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto. Years later, Khrushchev admitted that he got in trouble with the mistranslation of his statement and clarified that they would not do the burying, as it is the Western state’s own working class who would do it for them. It may not have the punch that “We will bury you” initially had, but it still had the ominous tone of a foreboding giant to another.
- Vietnam War
One easily regrettable moments of America in its pursuit of bringing the Western way to the East was its unsolicited involvement with the Vietnam War. The mistranslation has been reported to be countless in number, as documents were reported to have been falsified and destroyed after transcribing them to English. In 1964, a report detailed that North Vietnamese forces attacked US ships in the Gulf of Tolkin twice. The attack prompted retaliation from the US government. But the crazy thing was, the second strike never happened.
Reports from the New York Times reveal that the NSA did in fact mistranslate intelligence received from North Vietnam. In the progression of the war, they then turned to falsifying and eradicating the source material. The war then continued on a false attribution of the scale in violence involved in the issue, leading to hundreds of thousands dead all on both sides of the Vietnamese parties largely due to a translation mishap.
- Hiroshima Bombing
One of American history’s biggest international conflict involves the Hiroshima bombing during World War II. But what would you think if you were told that the incident could have been avoided? During the war, the response of Japanese Prime Minister Kantaro Suzuki to a very sensitive topic could possibly have initiated the horrifying response of the U.S. forces. As reporters urged for a response regarding their conditional surrender to English forces, Prime Minister Suzuki answered by saying “Mokusatsu”, which could easily be translated as “no comment” implying an abstinence to say one’s stand with an issue.
But the mistranslation of Kantaro’s words fell into an audience unfamiliar with Japanese context. Traditionally rooted from the term of silence in Japanese, international papers reported the translation of the statement as “not worthy of comment” which in turn provoked the English forces for a retaliation, inappropriately assuming that Japan was unwilling to comply to such difficult terms. A few days later the atomic bomb was dropped in Hiroshima leaving over 70,000 dead and a hundred thousand more injured as a result of hot tempers and inefficient translators.
- Life on Mars
Ending up on a light note in this list is the mistranslation that sparked a worldwide curiosity. Nothing beats viral news like the news of extraterrestrial life. Proving to be an out-of-this-world groundbreaking discovery, Italian astronomer Giovanni Virginio Schiaparelli published his findings in observing Mars’ surface in the attempt to map the red planet. In his recorded studies in 1877, he labeled the dark and light areas on the surface of the planet as ‘seas’ and ‘continents’. The channels of these ‘seas’ he labeled as ‘canali’, which can easily be translated as ‘canal’ which sparked theories of the imagination that these were artificially made by extraterrestrial life forms.
This labeling confusion then prompted US astronomers to dig deep into the claims of the Italian’s works and would later on inspire great fictionists’ works such as H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds and Edgar Rice Burroughs' A Princess of Mars. Both fictional works detailed ancient Martian civilizations which started a worldwide following of science fiction literature grounded on vague misunderstood findings.
Translation errors are common enough even without crossing languages and contexts. But when the stakes are unexpectedly high, the precision of words have made history in more ways than one. On this list are but a few of the many similar mistranslation errors that occur from day to day. While some of them have minimal or limited effects, some are so catastrophic that it has shaped the course of history from viral branding decisions to historically unforgettable international conflicts, putting a whole new meaning to the saying: “Choose your words wisely.”
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