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Translation Failures: What’s The Worst That Can Happen?

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I recently had coffee with my friend Catherine, who works as a regulatory affairs officer for a large industrial manufacturing company, ensuring that products are manufactured and distributed in compliance with the appropriate legislation set by regulating authorities. When she took over her position, she found that mitigating risk with translation issues was extremely painful because the technical writers and engineers were all using different translation providers, all with different processes and policies for dealing with issues regarding terminology and mistranslations. Trying to standardize the process was difficult because she didn’t have buy-in from her manager. She was coordinating in-country reviews for translations coming from more than 10 different agencies that were all playing by different rules. Her worst experience included some labels that went out to plants in five different countries. The labels had been applied to product prior to anyone catching that the measurements had not been converted, as well as a key translation mistake where the word “NOT” was left out. This resulted in tens of thousands of dollars in lost revenue as the product sat in storage while the issue was resolved.

Translation FailuresHearing her story definitely made me cringe! Just how bad can a simple mistranslation or oversight be? I sat down and did a bit of research on the Internet and discovered some incredible stories of translations gone terribly wrong.

Risk mitigation for translations? What’s the worst that could happen?

Our government, as well as others, can answer this question. Let’s start with the Vietnam War. In 1964 the NSA, responsible for eavesdropping and breaking codes in foreign communications, intercepted a communication that lead them, as well as President Lyndon B. Johnson, to believe that North Vietnam had led a second attack on U.S. destroyers. Johnson used this information to persuade Congress to authorize military action, leading the United States into an incredibly long and bloody war with no clear victor. Multiple mistranslations have been reported for those communications, but the key phrase found in some documents—“we sacrificed two comrades,”—had been inaccurately translated to “we sacrificed two ships.” That phrase was used to suggest that the North Vietnamese were reporting the loss of ships in a new battle.

And then of course there is what has been known as “The World’s Most Tragic Translation.” In 1945, Allied leaders drew up surrender terms for the Japanese in a strongly worded declaration. These terms included a statement that a negative answer would invite “prompt and utter destruction.” When questioned by reporters in Tokyo, the Premier Kantaro Suzuki gave a generic response that he was withholding comment. However, he used the word “mokusatsu,” which rather than be taken as “silence” as it was intended, was translated as “not worthy of comment.” Within 10 days Hiroshima was leveled by the atomic bomb.

Admittedly, that’s a bit extreme. But lives may still be at stake.

A man walked into a Florida hospital complaining of nausea (“intoxicado”). The medical staff misinterpreted his symptom as his being under the influence of drugs or alcohol. It was eventually determined that the man had had a brain aneurysm and consequently became quadriplegic. A $71 million lawsuit was then filed against the hospital.

In 2008, a helicopter crash in France causing the death of eight people is believed to be in part the result of poorly translated manuals. The helicopter had temporarily made a landing after a cockpit light signaled to the pilot that the blade pressure had decreased. The problem was addressed via an incorrect procedure given in the manual.

Oh, and money, lots of money…

One of our translators shared with us a little anecdote: “To publish any kind of household appliance manual and constantly refer to the ‘earth’ instead of the ‘ground’ in talking about electrical connections could lead to a product liability suit. I am aware of a lawsuit that occurred when a transformer that had been manufactured in Europe blew up in use in the United States, because the instruction manual had been translated in China into what the Chinese fondly believe to be English (which English, we do not know) and the instructions for attaching the surge arrestors were so poorly translated that the surge arrestors were wrongly attached and the whole device blew up, at a cost of five million dollars to the owners of the transformer.”

In 1999 there was a multimillion-dollar space exploration disaster caused by a failure to translate basic English technical specs into metric values, resulting in the Mars Climate Orbiter smashing into the planet rather than reaching a safe orbit.

Then of course there are some translation mistakes that are beyond belief.

Translation FailuresI’m still a bit shocked after discovering this one. In 2007, Doris Moore in Toronto purchased a sofa from Vanaik Furniture. Doris’s daughter discovered that the label contained a description of the color of the couch using the “N” word. The racial slur was traced to the Chinese manufacturing company which had used an old dictionary in writing the English text on their labels.


There is a great deal at stake in terms of time, money, and reputation if translations regarding your products and/or services are not in compliance with legislation handed down by regulatory authorities. This is not news. However, the process for verifying translations coming at you from multiple departments and multiple sources can be unnecessarily painful. The more difficult this process is, the more likely a mistranslation, much like the one Catherine experienced, will one day haunt you.

Consolidating your initial translations, or at the very least consolidating your translation reviews, will help ease your project management burden. In lieu of completely changing your company’s translation process, which might not be possible for you, we recommend following the five steps outlined in our Translation Checklist.

Meeting Regulatory Compliance – Translation Checklist

Translation FailuresCheck out these five easy steps to ensure your labels, manuals, training materials, and marketing collateral are complying with regulations!

If you are looking for solutions for consolidating your translations with a team who understands what’s at stake and want to get clear on what that looks like, click here to receive a free up to 1 hour consultation ($500 value).

To learn more about doing business globally, visit our blog at To learn more about McElroy Translation’s localization experience, visit our website or give us a call at 800-531-9977.



Published - November 2012

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