7 Disastrous Events Caused by Mistranslation | Bilingua Franca

7 Disastrous Events Caused by Mistranslations

Bilingua Franca

Missing targetMistranslations in everyday situations may appear funny and easy to dismiss. However, there are times when incorrect translations can be disastrous. Professional translators take the full context of culture, figures of speech, and everyday language usage into consideration. These are among the most vital aspects that automated translations and non-professional translations lack. When translations are performed by a machine or an inexperienced translator, the consequences can be as disastrous as the following: 


Back in 1980, a man named Willie Ramirez arrived to a Florida hospital in a comatose state. Ramirez’s family was trying to explain and describe the situation to the doctors, stating that he had food poisoning. They could only communicate in Spanish as their English was very limited. When a bilingual staff member of the hospital assisted the family and translated for them, they mistakenly translated “intoxicado” to “intoxicated”.  However, “Intoxicado” should have been interpreted as poisoned. Willie Ramirez was actually suffering from a cerebral hemorrhage, but the doctors treated him as if he has a drug/alcohol overdose, and Willie continued to bleed for the next two days as he was laying in a hospital bed. Due to this mistranslation and following malpractice in treatment, Willie became quadriplegic, his legs and arms were paralyzed. Willie and his family sued and got $71 million dollars in compensation for the malpractice.

Assume Nothing

HSBC, or the Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation, is one of the largest banks in the world. However, mistranslations transcend class if the proper care is not taken to ensure you are hiring highly qualified translators. In the 2000s, HSBC was the victim of a translation blunder that came with a hefty price tag. HSBC was running an advertising campaign with the slogan, “Assume Nothing”. In some of their markets, it was actually mistranslated as “Do Nothing” which negatively impacted the branding efforts of the marketing campaign. The blunder cost HSBC millions of dollars in damage control in an effort to re-brand and fix the advertising campaign in some of their markets.

Person confusedWiped off the Map

Iran and Israel have always had tension between them. A 2006 mistranslation did not assist in the relationship of these two countries as Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad publicly stated that Israel be eliminated or removed from the map. In actuality, this was a mistranslation. Ahmadinejad actually said that the government/leadership occupying Jerusalem must vanish from the pages of history and time. Of course, the audience, the journalists, and the media had already heard the incorrect message which only increased social tensions.

We Will Bury You

During the Cold War era, animosity between the Soviet Union and the West (particularly the United States) was at an all-time high in the 1950s. That only increased when the leader of the Soviet Union made a speech criticizing capitalism. In his speech, he mentioned that the Russians will outlast the Americans and live to see their burial. What he really meant was that communism will outlast capitalism. It was mistranslated and the message “we will bury you” was distributed among the masses. This was received as a threat and the US and Soviet relations were only made colder.

Lusts for the Future

President Jimmy Carter traveled to Poland in 1977 and hired an interpreter who knew Polish. When President Carter made a speech, the interpreter used antiquated words and unusual grammar. Eventually, the translator began mixing phrases up in Polish. To quote a few examples, the interpreter translated “When I Left the United States” to “When I abandoned the United States”, and the infamous “your lusts for the future” translated from “your desires for the future”. Of course, it became a media circus and became a historical speech in Poland.

No Comment

Right before the end of World War 2, the Allied leaders made a proposal on the terms of Japan’s surrender. After sending the proposal, the Japanese delayed their response as they needed to carefully examine the terms. One day, a Japanese reporter asked them about their response.  The phrase used was “mokusatsu” which can mean either “no comment” on the matter or the more negative meaning, we are dismissing it with contempt. The American translators misunderstood the response as being a contemptuous dismissal, which heightened the tension between the US and Japan.

Giving Up On their Sovereignty

In the 19th century, the British Empire struck a chord with the inhabitants of New Zealand known as the Maori. The Maori wanted security from raiding sailors, traders, and convicts, while the British wanted to expand on their colony. A treaty known as the Treaty of Waitangi was made and signed by both parties. However, they were signing two very different documents. In the version of the British, the Maori were to “resign to Her Majesty the Queen of England unconditionally and with no reservation all the rights and powers of Sovereignty.” The Maoris understood it as not giving up sovereignty, but merely governance. Even now, the mistakes of this treaty are still being worked out by the current generation.

Pablo V.
Founder of Bilingua Franca. Pablo holds a BA in Sociology and works as an Organic SEO Strategist for an agency in Phoenix. He is a study abroad enthusiast, a lover of deep and meaningful conversations, and is always fascinated to understand how things work. His passions include culture, language, human behavior, and astronomy.

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