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5 Translation Fails That Cost Millions

Translation fail posts are very common on social media and make us all laugh... a lot. The funny part of these memes is that very often, they don’t have harsh consequences, it is just a good laugh to start the day. They instantly become less amusing when the consequences become seriously damaging for businesses, or worse for people’s lives.

The quality of a translated text can change dramatically because of a few critical translation mistakes and these can expose you to disputes, financial liability, or even lawsuits. When you communicate with translated marketing content, produce translated documents to courts, translate medical reports for treating your patients, you can be held responsible for the translated content. Needless to say, bad translations may lead to huge compensations.

This article is about translation errors in marketing, translation fails in advertising, and in particular, 5 famous translation mistakes that cost millions.

We will give examples and see how to avoid these translation mistakes.

Let’s start with 5 of the most famous translation errors that cost millions.

1 - Translation Fails on an Earnings Report Cost Millions to Sharp

In late 2012, when Sharp Corp. delivered its earnings report, the outlook was disheartening, as the organization had been falling altogether behind the electronic goliaths, losing market share consistently. When Sharp asked for the translation from Japanese into English of their financial report, the translation stated their acknowledgment of the company’s struggles as "material doubt" that the organization could keep on being an "ongoing concern." The language in the English translation sounded a lot more grounded and gloomier than the original Japanese statement. According to the translation, the organization had essentially anticipated its own end. Investors were terrified. Sharp's stock plunged much farther to a complete yearly decline of 75%.

2 - Translation Error That Hurt Hsbc’s Brand Image

As a major aspect of their multilingual advertising strategy, HSBC attempted to grow its "Assume Nothing" motto to some other languages. As HSBC highly esteems security and straightforwardness with their clients, speaking the language of their customers was definitely a great idea.

Nonetheless, what wasn't insightful was their inability to make sure the message in those target languages would retain the meaning and resonate with the speakers of those languages. Sadly, rather than "Assume Nothing", many translations meant "Do nothing" in the localized marketing content.

That translation error was implying that financial managers were doing nothing for the customers, which of course was very bad for the brand image.

Having spent 10 million dollars on the worldwide marketing campaign, HSBC cleared up this now-famous marketing translation fail and changed its slogan to “The World’s Local Bank”.

3 - Occidental Petroleum Corporation (Oxy) vs Ecuador

In 2012, in the case between Occidental Petroleum Corporation (Oxy) and Ecuador, the court ruled that the Republic of Ecuador had breached the Bilateral Investment Treaty and awarded damages of 1.76 billion dollars.

Ecuadorian representative Professor Brigitte Stern suggested that the reason why the damage was so high was a translation error. She stated, “Had the translations been correct and the original Spanish texts been really taken into account, the conclusions arrived at by the majority would have been impossible to sustain.” A poor translation of documents submitted by Ecuadorian lawyers contributed to a 40% increase in the damages awarded.

Ultimately, this part of the award was annulled by a committee of native Spanish speakers.

4 - Willie Ramirez

One of the most expensive medical translation mistakes ever made involved the case of Willie Ramirez. It is also one of the best known medical translation errors because of its dramatic outcome.

Willie was taken to the hospital by his Cuban parents for food poisoning. They explained in Spanish that he was “intoxicado” to the doctors. The hospital staff understood it as “intoxicated” and treated him for drug overdose. But “intoxicado” is not the same as “intoxicated.” Brain hemorrhage caused by wrong treatment left him a quadriplegic for life.

The hospital, which was obliged to provide a professional interpreter, found itself liable for approximately 71 million dollars to pay for Willie’s treatment and for damages.

5 - Mead Johnson

Mead Johnson Nutritionals, a manufacturer of infant formula recalled 4.6 million cans of baby formula due to poor English to Spanish translation of instructions labels. According to the United States Food & Drug Administration, if the formula was prepared according to the mistranslated instructions, it could have been fatal. Mead Johnson suffered approximately 10 million dollars in losses due to product recalls.

These famous translation mistakes that cost millions lead us to the following question: how to avoid translation fails? What to do during your international marketing and advertising campaigns to make sure your international content, i.e. your translations, are of good quality and error-proof?

First of all, make sure you are localizing your content and not just translating. Here’s a short read if you are not familiar with the difference between localization and translation.

In any case, the localization of marketing and advertising content should be done by professionals, by people familiar with, not only the language but also the local culture, the local sayings, the correct way to address people, the right term to use, the local trends… I think you get what we mean.

As you will work with professionals, you will be in touch with many different language service providers, i.e. translation agencies. Make sure you have the budget to get your content or your campaign properly localized. Do not pick the translation agency that offers the lowest rate. It is the biggest mistake that could be done while reaching out to broader audiences. You could reach out to broader audiences but the content with translation errors that do not resonate with those audiences is surely doomed to fail, and in the end, costs you more than the initial translation budget.

MotaWord can help you localize your content, your international marketing and advertising campaigns, with its 24,000 + professional translators from over 150 countries, in 114 languages, without breaking the bank. Try us here.

Fun fact: Did you know that MotaWord is a play on words from the French expression “mot à mot”, which means “Word for word”?

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