The Murky Waters Of Translation Errors

Translating from one language to another is a risky process. Because you’re not just translating words and expressions. Google Translate can do that. You’re actually conveying the subtle nuances of the original language with the history and culture, social upheavals and folklore, and every hint and undertone that that word has in the collective consciousness of its people to another language with its own intricacies.

It’s no wonder that mistakes happen more often than not. Some are accidental, others are the result of laziness. But in most cases, the problem has to do with the fact that the translator hadn’t done their due diligence. You have to remember whether you’re in the middle of a business negotiation with a person who speaks another language or you’re targeting another culture with a marketing campaign, that what looks good on paper doesn’t necessarily mean that it will work once your proposal or advertisement makes the transition to the other culture. The devil is in the details as they say. And while you may think you’ve got all your bases covered, a minor detail might blow up the whole thing right in your face.

And thanks to globalization, the need to address diverse societies and cultures is something that every businessman, marketing manager, and advertiser find themselves having to deal with on almost a daily basis. You can’t just say I’m going to make a killer ad that will resonate with the people in Africa. Because Africa is a continent with 54 countries, many of which have their own unique language and culture. So what works for a businessman in South Africa won’t have the same effect on a Kenyan farmer or a fisherman from North Africa.

Even if you don’t use language at all and depend entirely on images you can still get it wrong. Which is when trying to use language you need to tread carefully because it’s a literal minefield. Case in point the diplomatic row that almost blew up the negotiations between the US and France in 1830. And it all had to do with a mistranslation of the French verb ‘demander’ which means ‘to ask’. Paris had sent a letter to the White House using that word. A staff tasked with translating the French letter to the President was probably in a hurry and used the word ‘demand’ instead of ‘ask’. But Washington wasn’t having it. You can demand something from another country only if you have beaten said country to a pulp. So naturally, the White House was indignant while the French were looking confused. Luckily the mistake was corrected and the proper language was used and everybody got back to the negotiating table without losing face.

The following infographic shows that translation mistakes occur a lot more than you think. While some of the errors are funny and amusing leading to no more than a chuckle and maybe a cartoon in the local paper, others have far-reaching consequences and could cost a brand millions of dollars in lost sales and revenue.

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