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translation mistakes - chocolate in Japan

Infamous translation mistakes from history

These days there are a host of translation options available to those smart enough to use them, whether you need video translation, voice prompts or voice-overs, which can convey a message across the language barrier with the highest level of lucidity. Here, however, we look at some translation mistakes when good translation was sadly underused, with often disastrous results.


When Willie Ramirez was admitted to a hospital in Florida, in a comatose state in 1980, his friends and family attempted to explain his condition to those who were treating him, but they only spoke Spanish. When they described him as “intoxicado” the doctors assumed they meant “intoxicated”. In fact, the word is much closer to “poisoned” in meaning; Ramirez’s family thought he had food poisoning. It turned out neither was the case, but the doctors treated him for substance abuse, which lead to delay in treating the haemorrhage that he was actually suffering from. Because of this, Ramirez was left quadriplegic, and ended up suing the hospital for 71 million dollars.


In 1977, US President Jimmy Carter went to Poland, then still a communist country, to hold a daring press conference that would be the United States’ first ever in the Eastern Bloc. This was obviously an occasion that would require great diplomacy and tact. Unfortunately, the less than skilled translator ended up heinously misrepresenting his speech in Polish with syntax that was a hundred years out of date. Mistranslations included turning “I left the United States this morning” to “When I abandoned the United States” and “I have come to learn your opinions and understand your desires for the future,” to, “I desire the Poles carnally.”


In the 1950s, chocolate manufacturers started campaigning to bring the traditional western celebration of Valentine’s Day to Japan. However, a mistranslation on one company’s promotions gave the wrongful impression that it was women who usually gave chocolates to men on the day. This idea was quickly picked up, and is still followed as a tradition to this date, with men reciprocating the gift a month later on the 14th of March.