Why Machine Translation won't replace Manual Translation in 2019 - 5 Fails & Mishaps

5 funny (and not so funny) translation mishaps

Knowing how to speak two languages doesn’t mean that you know how to translate. Translation is a unique skill that professionals work hard to develop. Equally, machine translation has its pitfalls and companies and individuals shouldn’t rely on it to produce a good translation. The human factor continues to be essential.

The importance of a good human translation becomes even more obvious when things go wrong. Here are 5 funny (and not so funny) examples that show the high-stakes when it comes to translation.

1. Tweets, tweets, tweets

Not so long ago a British athlete started an international media debate while breastfeeding her son during an ultramarathon.

We’ll never know how this journalist got it so wrong and ended up calling her “a tramp” – perhaps a bad Facebook translation or a literal translation. What is clear is that the journalist should have consulted a professional translator.


2. Machine translation, not quite there yet…

Machine translation can give us some glorious moments (although embarrassing for some). Both individuals and companies tend to use machine translation to save some money. But this might prove a costly decision in the end – both professionally and in terms of the reputation of the company.

There are countless examples of machine translation mishaps. The example below shows how machine translation can go totally wrong when aiming to translate the Spanish “Have a lovely bank holiday weekend” into English…

3. Brexit trouble

But the source of translation mishaps is not just machine translation. Hiring a bad translator without the proper qualifications and knowledge of the language and culture (of both source and target) can prove very damaging.

The British Government experienced this first hand last summer when a white paper translated into German left the Government facing ridicule from German-speaking EU officials.

It’s not clear if a machine was involved but the translation was deemed “unreadable” by German speakers, written in strange “archaic” language and made-up compound words. Even the headline contained a grammatical mistake.

Government cuts were blamed for the lack of a professional service to provide a good translation.

The truth is this meant a loss of credibility to the British government in the already difficult negotiations with the EU over the Brexit conundrum.

4. The biggest mistake in history?

But the consequences of a mistranslation can go far beyond what one can imagine. One of the most cited cases in which the consequences of an inadequate translation were catastrophic took place during World War II.

In 1945, the United States dropped the first atomic bomb on Japan’s Hiroshima – leading to the loss of hundreds of thousands of lives.

A month before this happened, leaders from the US, United Kingdom, Russia and China had given Japan an ultimatum that would put a stop to the war. If Japan responded negatively to the ultimatum, they said, there would be “prompt and utter destruction”. Japan’s premier at the time replied to the ultimatum with one-word: “mokusatsu”.

The word mokusatsu comprises two separate characters. “Moku” referring to “silent” and “Satsu” meaning “kill”, literally “kill by silence”. The Japanese premier had used this word many times before to mean “no comment”.

The subsequent, unclassified NASA document entitled Mokusatsu: One Word, Two Lessons highlighted the possible issues of a translation done by someone not familiar with the nuances of a foreign culture and language.

The document stated that “Many people, especially non-linguists, seem to feel that every word in one language has an exact counterpart, a perfectly equivalent match, in every other language.” Mistaking one word can have serious consequences.

Even though the Japanese premier could have chosen a more straightforward term in such a grave matter, it is well-known that politicians, even in the best of times, tend to use convoluted wording with no meaning or with so many meanings it’s hard to discern what they mean anyway.

5. On a lighter note…

An annual culinary festival celebrating grelo, a leafy green vegetable typical from the Galician town of As Pontes, takes place in this north-western Spanish town every year.

In 2015, official organisers started marketing the festival as a very different festival after using Google Translate for the translation of their marketing material from Galician into Spanish.

The word grelo was translated as “clitoris”, and they ended up inviting people to take part in a “clitoris festival”.

The invitation, posted for months on the town’s official website and later removed, read: “The clitoris is one of the typical products of Galician cuisine. Since 1981 … the festival has made the clitoris one of the star products of its local gastronomy.”

So, the consequences of a bad translation – from a machine or otherwise – can be ridiculous, and sometimes serious. Don’t make the same mistakes and hire an expert. If you’d like to speak to me about your translation needs then get in touch or start a live chat if I’m around.

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