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Translation is a minefield at the best of times but whereas telling your Spanish penpal you enjoy ‘long walks along the massacre’ can be a tad embarassing, it is nothing compared to the lasting damage to finances and reputation that a business mistranslation can incur. From awkward social faux-pas to accidentally sinking huge deals, even the smallest translation mistakes have cost businesses money, clients and respect on a massive scale. Below are some of the biggest and most common ‘oopsies’ in the translation industry:

Cultural Nuances

Cultural views are key. In many languages, even something as basic as sentence structure and types of words changes depending on who you’re talking to. This isn’t just politeness – it’s almost a whole new language.

This has caused havoc with many novice Japanese speakers who, upon hearing many names ending in ‘-san’, then add it to their own name – which is very taboo in Japanese culture. Referring to yourself as ‘Mike-san’ or ‘Lucy-san’ is effectively saying ‘I am incredibly important’ and we all know what we think of THAT guy in the office.

There are also literally dozens of honourifics other than -san which convey varying levels of respect. Even not using one is a bold statement, essentially saying that you and your conversational partner are such close friends that you’re beyond that. Within business, it is not uncommon for each individual level of management to have its own honorific (such as ‘bucho’, meaning ‘boss/head of a section’ ).

Using the wrong one is a very embarrassing and insulting mistake.

Understanding politeness and cultural norms is important with any culture, but especially so in East Asia. Always make sure your translator understands the people behind the language or you’ll end up looking like the ‘bucho’ of all idiots.

Direct Questions

Asking questions in a foreign language is always a tricky business, especially in advertising. The California Milk Processor Board should have had this in mind when they launched their ‘Got Milk?’ campaign in Spanish towards the Hispanic market – instead of asking them if they ‘Got Milk?’ it instead accused them of lactating, effectively alienating a $1.3 trillion market.

Let’s see them milk some profits out of that one.

Top 4 Common Business Translation Errors 02Homophones and Homographs

Sometimes a single letter can make all the difference. Imagine the horror of discovering your hot date with Briar turned out to be a hot date with Brian. Likewise, there is a world of difference between ‘braking the car’ and ‘breaking the car’.

This was a tough lesson for Schwepps when they attempted a marketing campaign in Italy, with a mistranslation of ‘Schwepps Tonic Water’ appearing as ‘Schwepps Toilet Water’ on advertisements.


Literal Translation

This is pretty much the single biggest culprit for translation mishaps of all sizes. It is the number one golden rule for translators across the globe and the one most amateurs fall prey to – do not translate literally.

Imagine this – you’re about to go on stage for the performance of your life. Your father is with you backstage and he grabs you by the shoulder, leans in and says ‘Break a leg, kid!’. In English it’s an (admittedly odd) positive saying of support. Now, imagine you translated this literally into another language. Instead, your father leans in close and says ‘I hope you get injured, you tiny child!’.


Most commonly, these occur in direct translation for signage. It is not uncommon to see the sign ‘Do not touch yourself’ in small stores and stalls across China. This is not due to a sharp rise in perverts but is, in fact, a direct translation from the Chinese meaning ‘Please do not touch the items yourself’.

Online automatic translators are the single biggest culprits of this. Avoid at all costs! Pepsi famously learned this the hard way when they launched a massive ad campaign in China, with their literally translated tagline ‘Come alive with Pepsi’ coming out the other side as ‘Pepsi will bring your ancestors back to life’.

All of these mistakes are easy to make, but difficult to fix. The most important thing you can do is leave it to the professionals. As HSBC will tell you of their $10 million fix-up of a botched translation in an ad campaign – cheap translators are very, very expensive. Translate in haste, repent in leisure.

Get yourself a real translation agency. It’ll save you selling toilet water and hurling lactation-related accusations at your customer base. In the world of translation – quality is key.


Author Bio

Mike Parsons enjoys travelling and working with many different cultures. He currently works for, a company that cover a wide range of translation services in the UK .

Swedish Translation Services is a company owned by Tess Whitty, a freelance translator (English-Swedish), proofreader, editor, copy writer, localizer and entrepreneur.

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