9 Little Translation Mistakes That Caused Big Problems

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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.

Presidents Day vs. President's Day vs. Presidents' Day: Which One Is It?

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welcomia/iStock via Getty Images

Happy Presidents’ Day! Or is it President’s Day? Or Presidents Day? What you call the national holiday depends on where you are, who you’re honoring, and how you think we’re celebrating.

Saying "President’s Day" implies that the day belongs to a singular president, such as George Washington or Abraham Lincoln, whose birthdays are the basis for the holiday. On the other hand, referring to it as "Presidents’ Day" means that the day belongs to all of the presidents—that it’s their day collectively. Finally, calling the day "Presidents Day"—plural with no apostrophe—would indicate that we’re honoring all POTUSes past and present (yes, even Andrew Johnson), but that no one president actually owns the day.

You would think that in the more than 140 years since "Washington’s Birthday" was declared a holiday in 1879, someone would have officially declared a way to spell the day. But in fact, even the White House itself hasn’t chosen a single variation for its style guide. They spelled it “President’s Day” here and “Presidents’ Day” here.


Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Maybe that indecision comes from the fact that Presidents Day isn’t even a federal holiday. The federal holiday is technically still called “Washington’s Birthday,” and states can choose to call it whatever they want. Some states, like Iowa, don’t officially acknowledge the day at all. And the location of the punctuation mark is a moot point when individual states choose to call it something else entirely, like “George Washington’s Birthday and Daisy Gatson Bates Day” in Arkansas, or “Birthdays of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson” in Alabama. (Alabama loves to split birthday celebrations, by the way; the third Monday in January celebrates both Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert E. Lee.)

You can look to official grammar sources to declare the right way, but even they don’t agree. The AP Stylebook prefers “Presidents Day,” while Chicago Style uses “Presidents’ Day.”

The bottom line: There’s no rhyme or reason to any of it. Go with what feels right. And even then, if you’re in one of those states that has chosen to spell it “President’s Day”—Washington, for example—and you use one of the grammar book stylings instead, you’re still technically wrong.

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11 Old-Fashioned Terms to Bring Back for Valentine’s Day

This 'dimber cove' is 'bughouse' for his 'dainty duck' on Valentine's Day.
This 'dimber cove' is 'bughouse' for his 'dainty duck' on Valentine's Day.
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Valentine’s Day is the opportune holiday to express all the lovey-dovey feelings you may not usually take the time to put into words—simply calling your partner “pretty” on the most romantic day of the year, however, might not exactly make the sparks fly. To help you get creative, here are 11 old-fashioned romance terms from the days of yore.

1. Bughouse

Decades before Beyoncé created a chart-topping melody to describe the feeling of being “crazy in love,” early 20th-century Americans simply called it “bughouse.”

2. Buss

Buss is an old-fashioned synonym of kiss that originated around 1570, possibly from the Middle English verb bassen, meaning “to kiss.” It also sounds fairly similar to a few kiss terms from Romance languages, like the French baiser, the Spanish beso, and Italian’s bacio.

3. Dainty duck

In Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Pyramus refers to his lover, Thisbe, as a “dainty duck.” They didn’t exactly live happily ever after, but that’s no reason not to bring back dainty duck as an adorable (and alliterative) term of endearment.

4. Dimber

From stunning to hunky, there are plenty of satisfactory ways to call someone “attractive.” None, however, have quite as much old-timey appeal as dimber, a gender-neutral term for pretty from the 17th century. Dimber cove refers to a handsome man, while dimber mort is used for a pretty girl or woman.

5. Dulcinea

In Miguel de Cervantes’s Don Quixote, the titular character nicknames a lovely peasant girl “Dulcinea,” derived from dulce, the Spanish word for sweet. Over time, people started using it as a general term for sweetheart.

6. Face Made of a Fiddle

If you find your partner irresistibly charming, you can tell them that they have a “face made of a fiddle”—a face so welcoming and attractive that it seems to mirror the smile-like curves of a fiddle. Just be careful not to confuse it with having a “face as long as a fiddle,” which describes a dismal, unhappy demeanor.

7. Jam Tart

Because Valentine’s Day is filled with sweet treats already, it’s only fitting that you’d replace the word heart with jam tart—a classic bit of Cockney rhyming slang for your ticker.

8. Prigster

If you’re fighting for the heart of a fair maiden, you can call your competitor a “prigster,” a word dating back to the 1670s that means “a rival in love.”

9. RILY

Lovers were expressing their feelings in shorthand long before the invention of texting—starting in the mid-1940s, telegrams sometimes contained the acronym RILY, for “Remember, I love you.”

10. Spoon

Engaging in a little foolish flirtation this Valentine’s Day? Your 19th-century ancestors might call that “spooning.”

11. Sugar Report

Sugar report caught on during World War II as a slang term for the letters that soldiers received from their wives and girlfriends back home. If you’re sending a lengthy email to your partner detailing your romantic itinerary for Valentine’s Day, feel free to type Sugar Report as the subject line.

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