Translation is Serious Business

Of course we have all had a good laugh at the translation goof ups that have come our way. That the Kentucky Fried Chicken slogan "finger-lickin' good" came out as "eat your fingers off" when translated into Chinese was a hoot. When it was reported that a sign outside a Hong Kong tailor's shop said "Ladies may have a fit upstairs", we giggled. But Translation blunders ain’t always a laughing matter. Read on to see some horrifying consequences of taking Translation lightly.

18-year-old Willie Ramirez was admitted to a Florida hospital in a comatose state. The paramedics and doctors were told by his Spanish speaking friends and family that Willie was probably “intoxicado”, meaning that he was probably suffering from food poisoning as he had eaten something outside. Translation by a bilingual staff member resulted in translating "intoxicado" as "intoxicated." 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 but he never did walk again.

I’m sure there was much more to the bombing in Hiroshima, but reports have been around that Good Translation Might Have Prevented Hiroshima. It is said that when Truman, Churchill and Stalin at Potsdam calling for the Japanese to surrender, the Japanese responded with the word ''mokusatsu,'' which was to be interpreted as “No comment. We’re still thinking about it.” The word “mokusatsu” can also mean “we’re ignoring it in contempt,” which was what was conveyed to the Allied Powers. This could have been the flint that lit the fire. Talk about words felling a nation!

So down with translation then? J. W. Goethe once said “Say what we may of the inadequacy of translation, yet the work is and will always be one of the weightiest and worthiest undertakings in the general concerns of the world.”

The importance of translation was made evident once again, in the recent murder case of Deisy Garcia and her young daughters. Deisy had filed a police report with the NYPD in May of last year, that she feared that her abusive husband would kill her and her daughters. She filed another complaint in November. Her complaint was in Spanish, and was never translated into English for further review! Deisy and her two daughters were murdered by her husband on January 18th 2014.

There are a many more such instances to attest to the tragedy caused when translation isn’t accorded due diligence. I could go on but I’m sure we get the picture. Erroneous translation can mean losing clients, lawsuits and lives! Sure, anyone who knows a language can tell you what’s being said, but to convey the meaning in a clear, natural and accurate manner is what it takes to be a good translator.

Know of any more translation blunders with disastrous consequences? Share them with us.