Have you ever put something into Google Translate before? Sometimes you get what you’re looking for — if it’s just one word or a structurally simple sentence. Try something a little more complex, though, and you end up with something completely wrong. In many instances, these translation fails aren’t just erroneous — they’re hilarious.
Auto-translation software treats language as if it’s an algorithm to deduce and put back together, but no software is ever advanced enough to capture the nuance and true structure of language as a concept. While these programs may help you understand a language at its most basic level, they certainly shouldn’t be used in any business context where accuracy and fluid communication are paramount.
It’s not all serious, though. Sometimes, business translation fails aren’t necessarily offensive or insulting... they’re just plain funny! Translation fails are something of a hit on social media, and here are a few big ones from 2016 that had the world in stitches.
Google Translate Turns Russia into “Mordor”
Many people don’t know that Google Translate isn’t just a pre-programmed Internet translation tool. Like other Google tools, the service picks up on evolving language patterns as it goes, in an effort to constantly perfect its translation systems.
However, with new speech patterns, Google Translate can’t tell jokes and slang from real words. As Ukrainian commentators continuously spoke ill of Russia’s annexation of Crimea, referring to the country as “Mordor” (the fictional country and home of the evil Sauron found in Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings), Google Translate didn’t recognize this as a joke. Thus, its servers began translating the word “Russia” as “Mordor”.
Nike’s Foot-In-Mouth Shoe Disaster
In early 2016, Nike released a new shoe design known as Special Edition Air Force 1, meant to celebrate the Chinese New Year. Each of the shoes could be customized to show off two Chinese characters: on one shoe is the character ‘fa’, and the other shoe the character ‘fu.’ When combined, these characters are supposed to be positive, meaning prosperity and luck. However, when the characters are separated, a different message is shown: “get fat.”
While not necessarily the fault of an auto-translation program, it goes to show that translation requires real insight and understanding of the applications and uses of language. Looks like no one at Nike knew that separating Chinese characters gives them a new meaning.
Political Sign Fails
During the 2016 campaign for president of the United States, Republican nominee Donald Trump went on record saying some very controversial things about Hispanics and Mexicans. As a result, his favorability fell drastically within the Latino community. Thus, he had to work hard in an effort to gain that approval rating back.
However, Trump only managed to make social media turn on him when he released political support signs reading “HISPANICS PARA TRUMP.” Spanish-speaking social media users were quick to point out both the non-translation of the word “Hispanics” (which should be “Hispanos” in Spanish),) and the misuse of the word “para.” While the word does mean “for,” the context in which it was used was inappropriate; “por” would be the correct form of the word.
This is an obvious example of Google-Translate-style translating. While no one is sure why “Hispanics” went untranslated, auto-translating programs don’t always catch the context in which a word should be used — thus, “por” and “para” can be interchangeable to a computer, while we know better as humans.
Translation fails can mar a business’ image, even though many people find them to be comical. If you want to avoid embarrassment caused by a silly translation error, don’t just run to Google Translate to convert your content. Use a professional, human translation service.
Tom Scott and Gretchen McCulloch of All Things Linguistic produced a very entertaining video that does an excellent job at explaining some of the challenges of machine translation — and why human translators are so incredibly difficult to replace.
In just 5 minutes, Tom gives some vivid examples on how language can trip up computers, including context, concepts that don't match between languages or don't translate at all, and shared expectations — and you'll also learn why there is no way to translate the meaning of "oppan Gangnam style" into a single English sentence.
"To accurately translate something," Tom summarizes in the end, "you don't just need to know how words map to concepts. You need to understand social structure, subtext, nuance, innuendo" — and it's clear that those are difficult things to teach to a machine.
(and which they unfortunately hear way too often)
Here are some of the comments I have heard firsthand from potential customers, over my many years working in the field of translation. I think that all translators have heard these at some point …
1 - You say you’re a translator and you can only speak three languages???
Or: You're a translator and you don't know how to say "Best Regards" in Chinese?
2 - I have about 45 pages to get a rush translation on by tomorrow, can you give me a discount?
3 - The document I have enclosed is a PDF created with InDesign. I absolutely need the formatting to be maintained.
4 - US$ 300,00 to translate 3000 words ? I am not prepared to pay that much. My nephew studied one month in France, he can handle this translation perfectly well for US$ 50,00 .
5 - You are a thief! I know a translator and he only gets a few cents per word, and you want US$ 400 to translate 5000 words !!!
6 - My secretary is bilingual and read your translation into Spanish. She thought it was absolutely terrible.
7 - Can you translate “Revenge is a dish best served cold” into one single Chinese character? It’s for a tattoo...
8 - I need my website www.domain.com translated. Part of it is Flash and the remaining part is dynamic content managed via a database. Please look at the website and send me a detailed quote.
9 - What does “XXX" mean (word taken out of context)? If you are a real translator, you should know!
10 - What did you study in order to become a translator? Literature?
Or: Translation isn’t a real job.
Or the ever popular: You spend your life sitting at home, working at your computer in your pajamas, and you earn your living doing that?
11 - The document to be translated is confidential and I can’t send it to you, but I need to know how much you are going to charge for it to be translated!
12 - Why are you charging so much when there are free software programs that do machine translations?
13 - Why do you need dictionaries? Aren’t you a professional translator?
14 - There’s no way that could take so long. This text is only about 20 pages long and that shouldn't take you any more than two days to translate!
15 - Please provide me with a rush translation of this 10 page contract. My customer is waiting in my office to get the document in his language.
We've all heard (or said) it: "Italian sounds so romantic!" - "French is the most beautiful language in the world!" - "German sounds ugly" etc. Nobody summed it up quite as succinctly as Roman emperor Charles V when he declared: "I speak Spanish to God, Italian to women, French to men, and German to my horse."
But why is it that certain languages sound poetic and melodious while others grate on our nerves?
At The Guardian, Matthew Jenkin explains that sociolinguistic have so far not been able to find any intrinsic reason that certain languages should be objectively "more beautiful" than others. Instead, a language's attractiveness seems to depend entirely on our own background.
For instance, the attractiveness of a language depends on the perceived value of speaking it: Chinese is increasingly considered valuable because of that country's economic rise. Our subjective impressions of a country or region also influences what we think of the language spoken there: if hearing Italian puts us in the mind of the canals of Venice or sunsets in Tuscany, the language will automatically seem more "beautiful" to us.
The closeness of a language's sounds to one's own mother tongue also influences their impression of it. Consonant clusters (as they are common in German) or the tonal distinctions used in Thai and Mandarin will sound unnatural and harsh to a native English speaker.
"There hasn't been any research that has directly exploited the attractiveness of a language and didn't eventually tie it back to the social evaluation of the speaking community," Dr. Vineeta Chand of the University of Essex says in the Guardian. In other words: it's all subjective.
And if you want an idea what your language sounds like to someone who doesn't understand it, listen to this amazing video of a woman imitating a dozen languages without actually saying anything...
The proper term is "cross-linguistic onomatopoeia," but James Chapman just calls them "sounds in other languages": from the crying of a baby in Spanish (buá buá), the crowing of a rooster in French (cocorico), the clicking of a camera in Russian (shchyolk) and the ringing of a telephone in Italian (drin drin), Wikipedia has an exhaustive list of words describing noises from around the world.
If an exhaustive list isn't what you're in the mood for, you can always hop over to James Chapman's site, where he posts cute illustrations of splash, plouf, zabun (that's summertime splashing) every week. Our favorite is the International Guide to Shutting People Up.
Oh, and to answer the question -- in Germany, the trumpeting of an elephant sounds like this: töröö!
Did you know "mortgage" comes from the French for "death pledge"? Or that "senator" shares its root with "senile"? Mental Floss's John Green explains 40 weird word origins in this video: