Mistranslation and its Grave -Yet Avoidable- Consequences

Mistranslation and its Grave -Yet Avoidable- Consequences

In 2009, a single mistranslated word cost HSBC $10 million in rebranding and damage control1. The campaign’s tagline “Assume Nothing” took a wrong turn when it was falsely translated to “Do Nothing” in some regions. Seeing that this happened in a time when the wealthy were already reluctant to invest through private banks, accidentally asking them to do nothing was the worst message that could have possibly been communicated. 

Within ten years from this mishap, and with globalization accelerating at an unprecedented speed, the global language services market – which includes translation among other services – had doubled in size to $46.9 billion2. As a response to this surging need for translation, multiple companies have introduced open-source machine translation services, some of which translate up to 100 billion words each day. 

As sizable and impressive as these services’ pool of language data is, it wasn’t long before users realized the impeding capacity of literal translation and the grave consequences of translating words without context. 

Language, and the beauty of its ability to channel deep meanings, is far more than the sum of its words; it’s everything that lingers in-between the lines. 

The Art of Translation 

Teenager people at the national flags board

In essence, translation is the act of transforming text from source-language into target-language without jeopardizing meaning. However, this often sounds a lot easier than it is. 

In many languages, a single word can hold multiple meanings and is only correctly understood based on the context. Furthermore, the constant evolution of cultures, and with them languages, means that every word has a story that changes with time – even when meanings are the same, it’s sometimes the connotations that change.  

What this means is that professional translation requires the empathy of an artist and the knowledge of a scholar in order to deliver flawless translation. 

Common Mistranslations 

Stressed young businessman overworking

While mistranslation can often happen at the contextual level, it may even happen at the molecular word-for-word level. 

Here’s a list of common mistranslations from around the world: 

Translation from Spanish to English 

Among the Spanish words that are mistranslated due to their uncanny similarities to an English word is educado which is often translated as educated whereas it means polite.  

Another Spanish-English translation failure includes carrera which many mistakenly translate into career while it actually means university degree.  

Translation from Arabic to English 

When it comes to translating Arabic, the room for confusion is endless given the amount of words that either look the same or look and sound the same. 

Such examples include haamel (حامل) which could either mean pregnant or holder, ‘iqd and aqd (both written عقد in Arabic) respectively mean decade and contract, or shab (شاب) which means either young man or (of a man) to have grown white hair. 

Translation from Latin to English 

Although Latin is now a dead language (no longer the native language anywhere), it is still used across several disciplines such as science, philosophy, law, and even Catholicism.  But since its fallout from public use, misinterpretations have become more prone to going unnoticed. 

Several misinterpreted texts from Latin to English are actually excerpts from the Bible such as the slight different between the words kamilos (rope) and kamelos (camel) which resulted in the famous Gospel passage: “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 19:24)3

Sometimes, translation failures can give us a good laugh, but other times, they can cause a lot of damage. Whether you want to save yourself the embarrassment or the unnecessary repercussions of mistranslations, make sure you take on this task with utmost sensitivity and caution. 

Because at the end of the day, words are the lens through which we see one another. 

Find out more about our translation services here. 



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