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We’ve all gotten a good chuckle out of a translation fail. Whether that was from an episode of Google Translate Sings or something from Engrish.com is not important. This blog post is not about the innocent, humorous side of cheap translations. It’s about translation errors that killed people, crippled patients, and destroyed multi-million-dollar pieces of machinery.
This piece should drive home one important thing: some companies just cannot afford cheap translation. The long-term costs of lackluster translations often exceed the peanuts saved in the short term. It is just too risky. This is especially true in industries where lives are at stake. Medical companies and lawyers beware.
The Worst Parts of Getting It Wrong
- Getting slapped with a lawsuit is not fun. It is inconvenient and not something on the top of a company’s Christmas list. But, they’re usually preferable to customer death or destroying priceless equipment. Here are four tragedies that resulted from erroneous translations:
- The Destruction of The Mars Orbiter: Not all translations are linguistic. There is sometimes some math involved. A translator’s failure to properly convert English measurements to the metric system resulted in a catastrophic failure that sent the 125-million-dollar satellite careening off course. The planet’s harsh atmosphere tore the brand-new satellite to pieces.
- Radiation Poisoning at a French Hospital: In what was likely an attempt to save money, a US manufacturer of radiation machines did not offer dosage information in French. Administrative staff at the French hospital relied on bilingual coworkers to translate the English information. This lead to four deaths and dozens of cases of severe radiation poisoning.
- Serial Knee Implant Failures at a German Hospital: A US maker of knee prosthesis made two different models for their German customers. Though the company offered instructions in German, the product’s outer packaging was only available in English. After asking a coworker to translate the packaging, these prosthetics were incorrectly marked as non-cemented. This labeling error led to 47 failed surgeries and millions in compensation claims.
- The Dropping of the Hiroshima Bomb: Japanese is a complex language. Many words have multiple meanings and the correct one often depends upon surrounding content. After the US and allies demanded the unconditional surrender of Japan, they made it clear that any “any negative answer from Japan would invite “prompt and utter destruction.” When journalists pressed Japan’s Prime Minister for comment, he said that he was currently withholding comment. The government had yet to reach a final decision and he was unable to relay anything substantial. But, international news agencies mistakenly quoted him as saying that the ultimatum was ‘not worthy of comment.’
As you can see, translation errors are so much more than something to snicker at on your lunchbreak. They are sometimes the quickest way to sign someone’s death warrant. These cautionary tales should remind you of the dangers of subpar and machine-based translation. If your product can change someone’s life, it is vital to hire a reliable translator.
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