9 Little Translation Mistakes That Caused Big Problems

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iStock

Knowing how to speak two languages is not the same thing as knowing how to translate. Translation is a special skill that professionals work hard to develop. In their book Found in Translation, professional translators Nataly Kelly and Jost Zetzsche give a spirited tour of the world of translation, full of fascinating stories about everything from volunteer text message translators during the Haitian earthquake rescue effort, to the challenges of translation at the Olympics and the World Cup, to the personal friendships celebrities like Yao Ming and Marlee Matlin have with their translators.

The importance of good translation is most obvious when things go wrong. Here are nine examples from the book that show just how high-stakes the job of translation can be.

1. The seventy-one-million-dollar word

In 1980, 18-year-old Willie Ramirez was admitted to a Florida hospital in a comatose state. His friends and family tried to describe his condition to the paramedics and doctors who treated him, but they only spoke Spanish. Translation was provided by a bilingual staff member who translated "intoxicado" as "intoxicated." A professional interpreter would have known that "intoxicado" is closer to "poisoned" and doesn't carry the same connotations of drug or alcohol use that "intoxicated" does. Ramirez's family believed he was suffering from food poisoning. He was actually suffering from an intracerebral hemorrhage, but the doctors proceeded as if he were suffering from an intentional drug overdose, which can lead to some of the symptoms he displayed. Because of the delay in treatment, Ramirez was left quadriplegic. He received a malpractice settlement of $71 million.

2. Your lusts for the future

When President Carter traveled to Poland in 1977, the State Department hired a Russian interpreter who knew Polish, but was not used to interpreting professionally in that language. Through the interpreter, Carter ended up saying things in Polish like "when I abandoned the United States" (for "when I left the United States") and "your lusts for the future" (for "your desires for the future"), mistakes that the media in both countries very much enjoyed.

3. We will bury you

At the height of the cold war, Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev gave a speech in which he uttered a phrase that interpreted from Russian as "we will bury you." It was taken as chilling threat to bury the U.S. with a nuclear attack and escalated the tension between the U.S. and Russia. However, the translation was a bit too literal. The sense of the Russian phrase was more that "we will live to see you buried" or "we will outlast you." Still not exactly friendly, but not quite so threatening.

4. Do nothing

In 2009, HSBC bank had to launch a $10 million rebranding campaign to repair the damage done when its catchphrase "Assume Nothing" was mistranslated as "Do Nothing" in various countries.

5. Markets tumble

A panic in the world's foreign exchange market led the U.S. dollar to plunge in value after a poor English translation of an article by Guan Xiangdong of the China News Service zoomed around the Internet. The original article was a casual, speculative overview of some financial reports, but the English translation sounded much more authoritative and concrete.

6. What's that on Moses's head?

St. Jerome, the patron saint of translators, studied Hebrew so he could translate the Old Testament into Latin from the original, instead of from the third century Greek version that everyone else had used. The resulting Latin version, which became the basis for hundreds of subsequent translations, contained a famous mistake. When Moses comes down from Mount Sinai his head has "radiance" or, in Hebrew, "karan." But Hebrew is written without the vowels, and St. Jerome had read "karan" as "keren," or "horned." From this error came centuries of paintings and sculptures of Moses with horns and the odd offensive stereotype of the horned Jew.

7. Chocolates for him

In the 50s, when chocolate companies began encouraging people to celebrate Valentine's Day in Japan, a mistranslation from one company gave people the idea that it was customary for women to give chocolate to men on the holiday. And that's what they do to this day. On February 14, the women of Japan shower their men with chocolate hearts and truffles, and on March 14 the men return the favor. An all around win for the chocolate companies!

8. You must defeat Sheng Long

In the Japanese video game Street Fighter II a character says, "if you cannot overcome the Rising Dragon Punch, you cannot win!" When this was translated from Japanese into English, the characters for "rising dragon" were interpreted as "Sheng Long." The same characters can have different readings in Japanese, and the translator, working on a list of phrases and unaware of the context, thought a new person was being introduced to the game. Gamers went crazy trying to figure out who this Sheng Long was and how they could defeat him. In 1992, as an April Fools Day joke, Electronic Gaming Monthly published elaborate and difficult to execute instructions for how to find Sheng Long. It wasn't revealed as a hoax until that December, after countless hours had no doubt been wasted.

9. Trouble at Waitangi

In 1840, the British government made a deal with the Maori chiefs in New Zealand. The Maori wanted protection from marauding convicts, sailors, and traders running roughshod through their villages, and the British wanted to expand their colonial holdings. The Treaty of Waitangi was drawn up and both sides signed it. But they were signing different documents. In the English version, the Maori were to "cede to Her Majesty the Queen of England absolutely and without reservation all the rights and powers of Sovereignty." In the Maori translation, composed by a British missionary, they were not to give up sovereignty, but governance. They thought they were getting a legal system, but keeping their right to rule themselves. That's not how it turned out, and generations later the issues around the meaning of this treaty are still being worked out.

10 Reusable Gifts for Your Eco-Friendliest Friend

Disposable tea bags can't compete with this pla-tea-pus and his friends.
Disposable tea bags can't compete with this pla-tea-pus and his friends.
DecorChic/Amazon

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By this point, your eco-friendly pal probably has a reusable water bottle that accompanies them everywhere and some sturdy grocery totes that keep their plastic-bag count below par. Here are 10 other sustainable gift ideas that’ll help them in their conservation efforts.

1. Reusable Produce Bags; $13

No more staticky plastic bags.Naturally Sensible/Amazon

The complimentary plastic produce bags in grocery stores aren’t great, but neither is having all your spherical fruits and vegetables roll pell-mell down the checkout conveyor belt. Enter the perfect alternative: mesh bags that are nylon, lightweight, and even machine-washable.

Buy it: Amazon

2. Animal Tea Infusers; $16

Nothing like afternoon tea with your tiny animal friends.DecorChic/Amazon

Saying goodbye to disposable tea bags calls for a quality tea diffuser, and there’s really no reason why it shouldn’t be shaped like an adorable animal. This “ParTEA Pack” includes a hippo, platypus, otter, cat, and owl, which can all hang over the edge of a glass or mug. (In other words, you won’t have to fish them out with your fingers or dirty a spoon when your loose leaf is done steeping.)

Buy it: Amazon

3. Rocketbook Smart Notebook; $25

Typing your notes on a tablet or laptop might save trees, but it doesn’t quite capture the feeling of writing on paper with a regular pen. The Rocketbook, on the other hand, does. After you’re finished filling a page with sketches, musings, or whatever else, you scan it into the Rocketbook app with your smartphone, wipe it clean with the microfiber cloth, and start again. This one also comes with a compatible pen, but any PILOT FriXion pens will do.

Buy it: Amazon

4. Food Huggers; $13

"I'm a hugger!"Food Huggers/Amazon

It’s hard to compete with the convenience of plastic wrap or tin foil when it comes to covering the exposed end of a piece of produce or an open tin can—and keeping those leftovers in food storage containers can take up valuable space in the fridge. This set of five silicone Food Huggers stretch to fit over a wide range of circular goods, from a lidless jar to half a lemon.

Buy it: Amazon

5. Swiffer Mop Pads; $15

For floors that'll shine like the top of the Chrysler Building.Turbo Microfiber/Amazon

Swiffers may be much less unwieldy than regular mops, but the disposable pads present a problem to anyone who likes to keep their trash output to a minimum. These machine-washable pads fasten to the bottom of any Swiffer WetJet, and the thick microfiber will trap dirt and dust instead of pushing it into corners. Each pad lasts for at least 100 uses, so you’d be saving your eco-friendly friend quite a bit of money, too.

Buy it: Amazon

6. SodaStream for Sparkling Water; $69

A fondness for fizzy over flat water doesn’t have to mean buying it bottled. Not only does the SodaStream let you make seltzer at home, but it’s also small enough that it won’t take up too much precious counter space. SodaStream also sells flavor drops to give your home-brewed beverage even more flair—this pack from Amazon ($25) includes mango, orange, raspberry, lemon, and lime.

Buy it: Amazon

7. Washable Lint Roller; $13

Roller dirty.iLifeTech/Amazon

There’s a good chance that anyone with a pet (or just an intense dislike for lint) has lint-rolled their way through countless sticky sheets. iLifeTech’s reusable roller boasts “the power of glue,” which doesn’t wear off even after you’ve washed it. Each one also comes with a 3-inch travel-sized version, so you can stay fuzz-free on the go.

Buy it: Amazon

8. Countertop Compost Bin; $23

Like a tiny Tin Man for your table.Epica/Amazon

Even if you keep a compost pile in your own backyard, it doesn’t make sense to dash outside every time you need to dump a food scrap. A countertop compost bin can come in handy, especially if it kills odors and blends in with your decor. This 1.3-gallon pail does both. It’s made of stainless steel—which matches just about everything—and contains an activated-charcoal filter that prevents rancid peels and juices from stinking up your kitchen.

Buy it: Amazon

9. Fabric-Softening Dryer Balls; $17

Also great for learning how to juggle without breaking anything.Smart Sheep

Nobody likes starchy, scratchy clothes, but some people might like blowing through bottles of fabric softener and boxes of dryer sheets even less. Smart Sheep is here to offer a solution: wool dryer balls. Not only do they last for more than 1000 loads, they also dry your laundry faster. And since they don’t contain any chemicals, fragrances, or synthetic materials, they’re a doubly great option for people with allergies and/or sensitive skin.

Buy it: Amazon

10. Rechargeable Batteries; $40

Say goodbye to loose batteries in your junk drawer.eneloop/Amazon

While plenty of devices are rechargeable themselves, others still require batteries to buzz, whir, and change the TV channel—so it’s good to have some rechargeable batteries on hand. In addition to AA batteries, AAA batteries, and a charger, this case from Panasonic comes with tiny canisters that function as C and D batteries when you slip the smaller batteries into them.

Buy it: Amazon

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What Is a Crony?

Wikimedia Commons//Public Domain
Wikimedia Commons//Public Domain

By Mignon Fogarty, Quick and Dirty Tips

You know how words start to sound weird to you? Like you start doubting yourself and start thinking, “Is that even a word?” Well, I’ve been hearing the word crony a lot lately, and it started to sound weird to me; so out of curiosity, I looked it up and thought it had an especially interesting origin, so I want to share it with you.

What is the origin of the word crony?

According to Merriam-Webster, the root of the word crony is the Greek word chronos, which means “time.”

The same root gives us the words

  • Chronology: The order of things in time.
  • Chronic: Something that lasts a long time or is with you continuously like a chronic disease.
  • Synchronous: Happening at the same time.
  • Anachronism: Something that isn’t right for its time, like a cell phone in a movie that’s supposed to be set in the 1950s.

What does crony mean?

A crony is someone you’ve been friends with or have known for a long time, and it appears to have been a slang term used by British university students and alumni to describe their old chums.

Who first used the word crony?

The first citation in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) is from the famous 17th-century diarist whom I’ve mentioned before, Samuel Pepys, who was a student at Cambridge. He referred to another man as “my old Schoolefellow … who was a great crony of mine.”

When did being a crony become a bad thing?

Today, crony often has a negative connotation, but all the examples in the OED use it in a good way, just to describe old friends. So I wanted to see when having cronies became a bad thing.

The negative meaning emerged in the United States in the early 1940s to describe the Truman administration.

According to the book Throw Them All Out by Peter Schweizer, in 1946 Arthur Krock wrote in The New York Times about President Truman’s connections to the Kansas City political machine, saying, “the Missouri flavor is strong around the White House itself ... and this has led to talk of government by crony.”

Another journalist, Walter Lippmann, used the word cronyism in The New York Times, again to describe the Truman administration, in 1952, bemoaning, “the amount of politically entrenched bureaucracy that has earned Mr. Truman’s regime its sorry reputation for corruption, cronyism, extravagance, waste, and confusion.” And you can really see the word cronyism take off in use after that date. It did also catch on in British English, but it seemed to take a few decades, starting to rise in the 1980s.

What is crony capitalism?

Also in the 1980s, people started talking about “crony capitalism," which is a form of corruption in which the government shows a lot of favoritism by determining which businesses get perks like tax breaks and permits. The magazine The Economist even created a crony capitalism index in 2014 to rank countries according to how much of this type of corruption they have. (Note: I can’t find any indication that The Economist published this index after 2016.)

How do people use the word crony?

To see more about how people use the word crony, I used a search engine called Netspeak that helps you find words that appear together, and it shows that one of the most common phrases is “old crony,” and that makes sense since often a crony is a buddy or friend from when you were in school or at least someone you’ve known for a long time.

And it also shows that the word is now common in the political realm because other common phrases are “Bush crony,” “Clinton crony,” and “political crony.” (I suspect this database doesn’t include text from the last decade or we’d see the names of other major politicians, too.)

In a further extension from corruption to outright criminal activity, you also occasionally see people use the word cronies to describe partners in crime or accomplices. For example, in 2019, there was an article in The Telegraph with the headline “My Brief but Terrifying Encounter With Pablo Escobar’s Cronies.”

Is crony related to crone?

Finally, the phrase “old crony” made me think of the phrase “old crone,” and I wondered whether crone has the same root since it refers to an old woman, but nope—it doesn’t.

The editors at the Oxford English Dictionary must have wondered the same thing because the etymology for crony actually says “no connection with crone has been traced.”

Instead, according to Etymonline, crone comes from the same root as carrion, which in Old French was also used to describe an old sheep.

Context matters when using the word crony

A crony was originally an old friend, but the word came to mean someone who gets favors because of whom they know instead of becoming successful on their own merits, and the change in meaning seems to be tied to criticism of United States president Harry Truman and his administration.

You can still use the word crony to simply describe an old friend, especially someone you hung out with a lot when you were young or in school. For example, you might say, “I’m not going home for Thanksgiving this year, and I am going to miss seeing all my old high school cronies.” But be sure the context makes your meaning clear since crony can also be used to describe people who don’t deserve their position or status.

A version of this article was originally published on Quick and Dirty Tips as "What Is a Crony?" Read more from Quick and Dirty Tips.

About the author

Mignon Fogarty is the founder of Quick and Dirty Tips and the author of seven books on language, including the New York Times bestseller Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing. She is an inductee in the Podcasting Hall of Fame, and the show is a five-time winner of Best Education Podcast in the Podcast Awards. She has appeared as a guest expert on The Oprah Winfrey Show and The Today Show. Her popular LinkedIn Learning courses help people write better to communicate better.