In the course of history, translators have made errors, some more consequential than others. A few have had serious, adverse effects. Obviously, some inaccurate translations have resulted in hilarious nonsense we often read in day-to-day life, such as in manuals, textbooks, menus, maps, print advertisements, or even traffic signs. Sometimes, more often than not, there are serious linguistic blunders with global consequences. The following are some examples:

The Martians

In 1877, the Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli reported that there were “canali” on Mars. The term was translated in press reports as “canals.” Since “canals” are artificial by definition, the American astronomer Percival Lowell became excited about the prospect of Mars having been populated by a race that constructed these canals as a final effort to save their dying planet. Although Lowell’s canals could never be correlated with any the real observations made on Mars, he ignited a wave of Mars-fever and started an endless chain of speculations about intelligent life on Mars. The problem is that “canali” does not mean “canals” in Italian; the word means “channels,” and Schiaparelli was referring to natural formations on planet Mars.

One Wrong Word and – Booom

By 1945, the Allies issued the Potsdam Declaration demanding the unconditional surrender of Japan, alternatively threatening “utter destruction.” The Japanese Premier Suzuki, when pressured by reporters for an answer, responded by saying the equivalent of “No comment. We are still thinking about it.” However, he used the word “mokusatsu” in his statement, which can also mean “we are ignoring it in contempt.” This is how Suzuki’s statement was translated, and ten days later, Harry Truman dropped a nuke on Hiroshima and again three days later on Nagasaki.

The Nukes are Coming

In 1956, Nikita Khrushchev gave a speech in Moscow to the Polish Embassy, ranting about the evils of capitalism as compared to the benefits of communism and capped his statements with the phrase, “We will bury you.” Since the Soviets had just acquired the H-bomb, this sounded like a serious threat, and it was touted as such by most of the Western media. The problem is that Khrushchev did not say that. He said, “We will still be around when you will be buried.” This is a common Russian idiom. It means simply “we will outlast you.” Interpreting the statement as a threat was a mistranslation.

Very Funny – Ha! Ha! Ha!

When Secretary of State Hilary Clinton thought she should make an attempt to get American/Russian relations back on track, she believed that humor might be an excellent overture with the Russians. So, she gave the Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov a contraption that had the English word “Reset” written on it accompanied by the Russian word “перегружка,” allegedly Russian for “Reset.” When Ms. Clinton asked Lavrov if she had gotten it right, he correctly stated, “You got it wrong. The word actually means ‘overcharge’. “ Perhaps Russian humor and American humor are not the same.

What do These Events Teach Us?

These few examples illustrate what can happen when important linguistic matters are left in the hands of unqualified translators or interpreters. Combine linguistic ineptitude with cultural incompetence, and one may get a toxic mixture with ultra-serious, negative consequences.

Good translators must have at least six qualifications:

  • They must be capable and trained linguists
  • They must be native target language speakers and have good knowledge of the source language
  • They must have the necessary subject matter knowledge for the job at hand
  • They must be culturally competent with regard to both the source and target language cultures
  • They must be good writers, with a feeling for style, flow, and the speaking habits of their target audience
  • They must be adept in the use of text processing tools and capable of formatting a translation to mirror the formatting of the source

At Apex, we do see the obvious. We make sure that our translators meet the six qualification criteria. But we also do not blindly trust quality assurance. Humans make mistakes and so do human translators, regardless of how qualified they may be. This is why we have checks and balances in place such as proofreaders, spell checkers, memory files, etc. Quality assurance is a technique in place to prevent mistakes from being made. Quality Control is a technique designed to catch the mistakes that will be made in spite of Quality Assurance. We realize that top quality is the result of highly educated, trained, and knowledgeable experts using best practices and the most advanced tools in a skilled manner.

This is what APEX does. And this is what you pay for. And it’s worth every penny, because the price of faulty translations may just be too high for all of us.