Anyone who’s worked with a translated text in books, films and advertising campaigns will have occasionally spotted translation mistakes. These pitfalls are more common than you would imagine. Often the mistake relates to a lack of understanding on cultural matters. It can be funny but it can also be embarrassing and is often the main cause of misunderstanding, lack of trust and also responsible for reputation damage.

An understanding of cultural background is crucial in translation and if sometimes we are disappointed with a translation of the title of a book or a film, that’s because sometimes the same title doesn’t work in Europe as in America or in Asia as in Brazil. On the other hand all translation has limits. Linguists can transpose the meaning of the source title in a ways that fits the culture of the target country and this is not a mistake. But mistakes, when they do happen, can have big consequences. Here you have a few examples of those mistakes:

PEPSI: The 1960’s Pepsi advertising campaign in China was a complete failure because of a translation mistake: the original slogan “Come alive with Pepsi” was improperly translated as “Pepsi brings your ancestor back from the grave”. This mistake caused a loss of credibility and reliability of the brand in China.

BIBLE: The most translated book in the world has surely had a few translation errors creep in since it was first translated from Aramaic into Ancient Greek. In fact, according to some hypotheses, the horns of Moses go back to Saint Jerome’s “translation error” in the Latin Vulgate version. In the moment when Moses comes down from Mount Sinai his head has “radiance” but the Hebrew word was misunderstood by Saint Jerome that translated with “horned”. This mistake was included in future translations and because of this Moses has been represented in sculptures and painting with horns.

WILLIE RAMIREZ’S CASE: Florida, 1980: 18-year-old Willie Ramirez was hospitalized in a comatose state. His friends and family tried to describe his condition to the doctors who treated him, but they only spoke Spanish. A bilingual staff member provided the interpretation service translating “intoxicado” as “intoxicated”. A professional interpreter would have known that “intoxicado” is closer to “poisoned” and doesn’t carry the same meaning of drug or alcohol use that “intoxicated” does. Cultural differences complicated the language issue. Willie was suffering an intracerebral haemorrhage, but the doctors proceeded as if he was experiencing an intentional drug overdose because of the wrong translation. Because of the delay in treatment, Ramirez was left quadriplegic and received a malpractice settlement of $71 million.

JAPAN: Sometimes a translation mistake can actually make a company more successful. In Japan in the 1950s chocolate companies began to promote Valentine’s Day to try and make people consume more chocolate but, due to a mistranslation, people were given the idea that women had to give chocolate to men on that day. And… they did not abandon this custom! In fact, on February 14 women are still showing their love to their beloved ones with chocolate hearts and pralines, while on March 14 men return the favour. A double victory for the chocolate companies.

These are some of the most famous blunders that translators have made. Translation mistakes can be prevented by avoiding literal translation, checking pronunciation in other languages and researching the country´s cultural values, but it is not easy to keep a constant, solid, coherent brand message in different countries. That’s why translation is important and it must not be taken for granted, as it’s a special skill that needs to be developed, otherwise, as we saw, it can lead to embarrassing mistakes.