Global Lingo Blog

Incorrect translation and interpreting – What’s the worst that could happen?

When something needs translating or interpreting, it has to be done by a professional. Simply knowing another language is not enough to know how to convey meaning accurately. When it does go wrong, what is the worst that can happen?

1. How about a $71 million fine?

In 1980, an 18-year-old boy was admitted to a hospital in Florida in a comatose state. His friends and family only spoke Spanish and so it was difficult for them to describe the situation to the medical staff.

Someone who was bilingual attempted to interpret for the doctors, but made the seemingly little mistake of interpreting ‘intoxicado’ as ‘intoxicated’. The word ‘intoxicated’ has connotations of drug or alcohol abuse, but this was not the case with the patient. An experienced interpreter would have recognised that the family had actually said that he was ‘poisoned’ by paying attention to the context.

This small mistake caused a misdiagnosis, and the boy became quadriplegic because he did not receive the proper treatment in time. The cost to the hospital was a malpractice settlement of $71 million.

2. Your image as a president.

When President Carter visited Poland in 1977, the State Department hired a Russian interpreter who spoke Polish to translate for him. That interpreter was not a professional Polish Interpreter, and so mistakes were made. President Carter said ‘when I left the US’, but this was translated into ‘when I abandoned the US’. And ‘your desires for the future’, when translated into Polish, became ‘your lusts for the future’. There must have been red faces all round!

3. The safety of your nation.

Bad translation and interpretation led to increased tensions between Russia and the US in the height of the Cold War. Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev made a speech in which he uttered a phrase that translated from Russian as, ‘We will bury you.’ Fearing nuclear attacks from Russia, the US took this as a threat. However, the translation of what Nikita Khrushchev had said was a bit too literal. What the Soviet Premier had actually meant was ‘we will outlast you’, or ‘we will live to see you buried’. Still not particularly friendly, but definitely not as threatening.

4. The world’s foreign exchange market.

The poor translation of an article by the China News Service led to panic in the foreign exchange market, and caused a plunge in the value of the US dollar. In Chinese, the article was a casual, speculative overview of some financial reports, but the English translation sounded much more authoritative and concrete.

It is a known fact that proper interpreting and translation saves lives. These examples further enforce that fact. When the need arises for translation services or interpreting services, make sure to choose the best.

The seventy one million dollar word

Jimmy Carter in Poland

We will bury you! – Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev

Mistranslated Chinese story creates economic panic

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