Don’t Get Lost in Translation

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A phrase we hear a lot nowadays is “lost in translation”. The film with the same title has now amplified the use of the phrase to cliched levels; yet there does not seem to be an alternative that quite captures what happens when people communicate across the language barrier and it all goes horribly wrong.

Communicating with people from foreign countries is no longer something just politicians and businessmen do. All of us now come across people from different countries at work, in our own towns and cities and when we go abroad for holiday or work. You are now just as likely to need a few words of Polish to impress a potential future date you meet in the pub as you are when visiting Warsaw on a spot of business. Getting it right in both instances is critical if you want to make an impression.

In fact, overcoming the language barrier is rapidly becoming one of the most critical issues of our time. People, businesses and governments are all trying to find solutions to their needs in order to live, work, travel or operate abroad. Language training continues to be an industry worth billions of pounds as people across the globe learn a foreign language for life, work, travel or love. International organisations such as the UN and EU have huge wage bills to cover the costs of interpreters and translators. Businesses wishing to tap foreign markets spend millions each year translating their documents and marketing materials. Even militaries are now investing large sums of money in creating translation gadgets for troops in foreign countries.  And as long as people from different countries continue to speak different languages, this need will not lessen.

Anyone learning a language will tell you it is a complex thing; so complex in fact that most people give up learning. It is this complexity that has given birth to lots of hilarious examples of how communicating across the language barrier can go horribly wrong. There are now websites and even books dedicated to preserving some of the classic examples of “translations gone wrong”. These gaffes can broadly be put into two categories; the written and the spoken.


Spoken Translation Gaffes


Gaffes made in speech are perhaps the more forgivable of blunders. Let’s face it, sometimes it even hard to speak in English! When speaking a foreign language you will never know it like a local – so how are you supposed to know the slang and all the cultural baggage that comes with any language?


The following are just some of the loads of examples of people putting their foot in it in a foreign country:


* A British boy studying the language in Germany was riding the school bus home. As it was summer the bus became really hot. In a typically British way of asking for the window to be opened he implied it rather that clearly stated it so asked the boy next to him, ‘Bist du heiss?’ (Are you hot?). The boy turned and looked with a startled expression. All the other passengers started to giggle. In the end someone explained he had asked his fellow passenger if he ‘felt hot’ – i.e. was feeling passionate.


* An expat Brit had just moved to Japan and was at a welcome party held in their honour with their new Japanese colleagues. Having just come from Italy, when everyone raised their glasses for a toast he exclaimed “cin cin!” which means “cheers” in Italian. Unbeknown to the poor expat was that “cin cin” meant ‘small penis’ in Japanese.


Even politicians are not free from the odd language gaffe:


* President George W. Bush mispronounced the name of the Spanish Prime Minister, Jose Maria Aznar, calling him “Ansar” which is the Spanish for “goose”. On another occasion he went one better than calling Greeks “Grecians” by calling Pakistanis, “Pakis” in front of Pakistan’s President Musharraf.


Written Translation Gaffes


Written translations come in many varieties and offer us the funnier examples of translations gone belly up. To simplify matters we’ll look at three categories of simple linguistic negligence.


Brand/Product Names:


* Companies often borrow words from another language to label a new product in their own country. Recently in Germany makers of knapsacks have started to refer to them as “Body Bags” – I can’t see many people wanting to be seen in one of those!


* IKEA once tried to sell a workbench called FARTFULL – not a hugely popular product for obvious reasons.


* Both Clairol and the Irish alcoholic drink Irish Mist did not properly consider the German language when they launched their products there. Clairol’s hair-curling iron “Mist Stick” and the drink “Irish Mist” both flopped – why? ‘Mist’ translates in German as “manure”. Fancy a glass of Irish manure?


* The Japanese seem to have a particular flair in naming products. The country has given us gems such as “homo soap” (a soap bar with a very niche target market), “coolpis” (a seemingly unappetizing fruit juice), “Germ bread” (fancy spreading your butter on that?) and “Shito Mix” (which even claims to be a “new improved shito”).




Foreign hotels seem to make a habit of DIY translations:


* “Is forbidden to steal hotel towels please. If you are not a person to do such a thing is please not to read notis.” (in a Tokyo hotel) – but what if I have already read it?


* “Visitors are expected to complain at the office between the hours of 9 and 11 A.M. daily.” (in a hotel in Athens) –  at least they are organised!


* “You are invited to take advantage of the chambermaid.” (in a Japanese hotel) –  as if the chambermaids don’t have enough on their plates.


* “Please do not bring solicitors into your room” (hotel in Thailand) –  instils confidence in any guest.


* “Sweat Dreams” (hotel in Poland) –  guess the air-conditioning doesn’t work.




Try and understand these:


“Small animals nibble you the life? They give you the cockroach? XXX is with your services. But which are we?” (from a French pest control website)


“This publication has dedicated the necklace of nature classical hybrid and is extensive in four tongues…to scholastic custom, whose production, that to full rhythm will be of menstrual lilt, satisfies the Italian market, for which we retain, might fully interest you it am because the commodity is economic.” (an Italian company’s mail shot)


“Smuggle the razor blade (reference value around 400 g) on your muscle vertically, then drag your skin and shave back slowly.” (from a packet of razor blades)


“Push up bottom” (Greek stick of deodorant)




Although they give us some comedy value these examples of poor translations and language blunders raise a more serious point: if people and businesses are to be successful on the international stage they must be able to communicate well in foreign languages. Going back to the example of the man in the pub or in Warsaw on business, if he had a few phrases in Polish it would make the world of difference.

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