Infamously Mistranslated Words and Phrases

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Translating Services Gone Wrong – Common pitfalls and funny mistranslations


We all know that unless you seek a professional language translation service, the alternative solution can be unreliable, especially when carried out by free or automated translation apps that are available today, often resulting in funny mistranslations.


These applications, unfortunately, fail to take into consideration any ambiguities or local, cultural and contextual considerations. The result is often superficial translations, where misreadings and misinterpretations warp the meaning completely and can lead to huge consequences.


For example, in the early 70s, Pepsi introduced a new brand slogan to promote its product: ‘Come alive with the Pepsi Generation’. All fine and A-OK in English, but the problems came to light when Pepsi launched this seemingly safe campaign overseas.


Cracks first appeared in Germany where the exact translation of the phrase meant, ‘Rise from the grave with Pepsi!’ In China things got worse, and the strapline used was ‘Pepsi brings your ancestors back from the grave.’


Similar errors can be found all over the world: in menus, signage, advertisements, instructions and so on. But, can superficial translations actually change the world?


Here at Kwintessential, we know they can:


3 Mistranslations that Changed the World


New Zealand’s Treaty of Waitangi


As British settlement increased in New Zealand over the 18th and 19th centuries, the British Government decided to negotiate a formal agreement with the Māori (native New Zealanders) chiefs to recognise NZ as a British Colony. A treaty was written in English then translated into Māori. The Treaty of Waitangi was signed on February 6, 1840, at Waitangi in the Bay of Islands.


However, since its signing, the treaty has caused innumerable problems. This controversy is a result of translation issues. Successive governments, including the 1860s settlers, believe the Treaty gave total sovereignty over the Māori people, their lands and over their resources. But, on the other side, the Māoris believe that the treaty they signed simply allowed the British to use their land, not own it.


To help rectify this, the Waitangi Tribunal was set up in 1975 – over a hundred years after the treaty’s creation. This body today rules over many cases and claims that are still being brought forward by dissatisfied Māori descendants who feel they are suffering today because of translation issues rooted in the 19th-century treaty. Many of these claims have stood and compensation has indeed been granted, others that have been denied have resulted in a huge struggle between Māori decedents and settler descendants.


While disagreements continue and will do so for a while, The Treaty of Waitangi is still considered New Zealand’s founding document.


The Atomic Bomb’s Debut


Although it is commonly accepted that the Americans dropped the world’s first atomic bomb to bring an end to the deadly war in Japan, on closer inspection it appears that there may have been a less catastrophic means to the same end:


At the time that he was pressed for an answer on the Allies’ demand for a Japanese surrender, Japan’s Premier, Kantara Suzuki, replied “Mokusatsu” – from the Japanese word for silence. I.e. he had given “no comment” as the Japanese government hadn’t yet had a chance to consider the ultimatum.


However, the word has other meanings quite different from that intended by Suzuki and it was these that international agencies picked up on. It was reported that the Japanese first in command saw the ultimatum as “not worthy of comment.” I.e. surrender was off the cards. As a result, the bombs went off 10 days later.


Released later, according to the US National Security Agency, “whoever it was who decided to translate mokusatsu by the one meaning (even though that is the first definition in the dictionary) and didn’t add a note that the word might also mean nothing stronger than “to withhold comment” did a horrible disservice to the people who read his translation…and who would never know that there was an ambiguous word used.”


The Glass – or was it fur? – Slipper


If you ask anyone what type of slipper featured in Cinderella, I’m sure you’d be very surprised if anyone gave you an answer that wasn’t glass. However, translation – or mistranslation – may have a big part to play shaping the story of Cinderella.


The best-known version of the fairy tale is Charles Perrault’s 1697 version. This is also the first version to make reference to a glass slipper or ‘pantoufle en verre’ as the French author references. This said, there has been much discussion amongst linguists and etymologists as whether a glass slipper was intended:


It is believed that, instead, the original text made reference to a ‘pantoufle en vair’ – a squirrel-fur slipper. The mix-up is to have occurred when the piece was translated as a result of the similarities in pronunciation and spelling between vair and verre.


Whatever Perrault’s intention, it cannot be denied that one material would indeed make a much more comfortable slipper than the other.


The Importance of Localisation in Language Translation


Quality language translation does prioritise word-for-word translation methods. Instead, more complex considerations are necessary for successfully contextualising language.


A quality translation service provider, like Kwintessential, will adopt a method of localisation. This means the translation will focus on messages as a whole to preserve meaning, rather than a literal lexical translation.


Kwintessential’s Language Translation Services


As an ISO:17100 accredited translation agency, at Kwintessential, localisation plays a huge part in each of our certified translators‘ daily lives. They take pride in ensuring that messages and meanings are translated rather than stand-alone word translations.


Our rigorous localisation methods have also been inspected according to international standards to make sure that the language translations that we provide are the best and most reliable that they can be.


To find out more about our quality translation services, and to ensure your humorous mistranslations don’t end up on our infamous list, get in touch today on 01460 279900 or email us at

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