Little translation errors that can cause big problems

On the cold November evening of 1956, speaking at the Polish embassy in Moscow, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev addressed western diplomats, as literally translated into English by Khrushchev’s personal interpreter: “…Whether you like it or not, history is on our side. We will bury you!” The obvious mistake in the translation prompted envoys from twelve NATO nations and Israel to leave the room, and became understood as readiness to use nuclear weapons against the West. What the Russian idiom actually meant was rather to ‘outlive’ than to ‘exterminate’. Not an excessively pleasant forecast either, but still not a direct threat.


Moses, by Michelangelo Buonarroti, 1512-1515

In today’s globalized world even a minor translation error may cause far-reaching reverberations. However, the earliest recorded translation blooper with global impact is linked to St. Jerome (ca. 347-420), renowned for his Latin translation of the Bible (known today as the Vulgate). I remember my childhood surprise when first seeing the photo of Michelangelo’s Moses with horns on his head. Such portrayal appeared due erroneous translation by St Jerome of the Hebrew word for radiance, ‘karan’ (the head of Moses returning from Mount Sinai was said to show ‘radiance’) as ‘keren’, or horned, due to Hebrew script omitting vowels. As a result, stereotypical depiction of horned Moses became widespread for centuries. 

Nowadays, translation blunders are easer to observe though hardly as pictorial. Advances in information and communication technologies have brought around many unexpected challenges. In order to reach out to bigger markets, tourist destinations, internet users, or other customers, the need emerged to translate various rules, guidelines, adverts, and other materials into numerous languages. Particularly critical role translation has played in the development of transnational companies, translating their content to hundreds of different languages as a prerequisite for rapid growth and global expansion. So, in the case of Facebook, the number of users in Italy skyrocketed following the launch of the Italian language interface, jumping from 375,000 to 933,000 in just four months, while in France, during the three months following the release, the number jumped from 1.4 to 2.4 million.

It is only natural that under such conditions translation errors occur, sometimes in a ridiculous way. Just to pick a few random hilarious translations out of the huge multitude of funny translation mistakes: instructions for a soap bubble gun: “While solution is not toxic it will not make child edible”; inscription in a Bangkok temple: “It is forbidden to enter a woman even a foreigner if dressed as a man”; one more from a barbershop in Tanzania: “Gentlemen’s throats cut with nice sharp razors”. In a more serious case, HSBC bank paid $10 million in 2009 to mend the damage caused by mistranslation of an advert catchphrase ‘Assume Nothing’ as – ‘Do Nothing’.


Italian to English translation. ‘False friend’ phenomenon – Italian ‘molestere’ (to bother) translated as ‘to molest’ (to sexually abuse)



Chinese to English translations often demonstrate the most hilarious translation errors

The most common translation mistakes happen due to either incompetence, ignorance of cultural context, or overly reliance on machine translation. Textual content may be translated consequently more than once, hence no surprise that translation errors accumulate and then may reach global audiences, often causing a good laugh, but sometimes financial loss or political tension.

If you don’t want to see your brand’s name among the list of companies with translation errors that caused them big problems, make sure to hire a professional language and translation services provider.


Translation error, translation mistake, translation blunder, mistake in translation: refers to any lack of congruence between the source text and the translated text, or to any inadequacy or incorrectness of the translation not present in the source. These include discongruities in meaning caused by misunderstanding or misinterpreting the source text, and failures in use of the language of translation in accordance to standard norms.

Funny translation, hilarious translate, translation blooper: refers to translation errors that cause strong comic effect, most frequently caused by total contextual inadequacy of translation, unexpected erotic or fantastic connotation, mixing up of representations of strikingly dissimilar objects or processes, or any other reason for causing comic effect not present in the source text.

Common translation mistake: refers to the widespread types of translation mistakes. The predominant categories of translation errors are mistakes in: punctuation; wording; misunderstanding and misinterpretation; addition or omission; terminology; literalness; ambiguity; grammar, and style. Misinterpretation rates as the most serious error, and in general mistranslation mistakes are considered as graver ones than grammar or language errors.