The biggest interpreting mistakes in history.

January 9, 2015 § 42 Comments

Dear colleagues:

Interpreting is a very difficult profession. It deals with the widest variety of themes and subject matters, and it completely depends on the human brain. All professional interpreters have made mistakes at one time or another, and we will make some more before our careers are over. Fortunately, good interpreters know how to recognize a mistake, and have the professional honesty needed to own their mistakes and correct them. We all know how to correct a blooper from the booth, with a physician, or on the record in court cases. This is enough in most cases, and we have professional liability insurance for those bigger errors we can make while practicing our profession. Most goof-ups do not go beyond a correction, an apology, and a good dose of embarrassment. Unfortunately, every once in a while an interpreter makes a mistake that can literally impact the entire world. I know that there are many more examples of these catastrophic interpreting mistakes, and I am even aware of many more than the ones I have included in this post. To decide what to include, and to drive home the point that none of us are safe from making an error of this magnitude (and that for that reason we must be alert at all times) I considered the relevance of the mistake, and the variety of interpreters who made them. These are the biggest interpreting mistakes in history that made my list:

In 2006, according to the interpreter’s rendition, the president of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad called for Israel to be “wiped off the map”. It was learned later that what he actually said was “the regime occupying Jerusalem must vanish from the page of time”. Regardless of your opinion about this statement, it is clear that its reach was different from what the interpreter understood. In a region of the world as delicate as the Middle East a mistake of this magnitude can have huge implications.

To continue with more presidents, in 1976 U.S. president Jimmy Carter spoke to a Polish-speaking audience and opened his remarks by saying: “I left the United States this morning”. The interpreter’s rendition was: “When I abandoned the United States”. Those present laughed at the obvious mistake, but things got more complicated later during the speech when the president said that: “…I have come to learn your opinions and understand your desires for the future…” The rendition by the same interpreter was: “I desire the Poles carnally…” and then the interpreter went on to criticize the Polish constitution. Of course these mistakes should never happen at that level, but sometimes they do.

This reminds us of the famous blooper during Nikita Khrushchev’s speech at the Polish Embassy in Moscow when he was interpreted as saying, in reference to the United States and the Western World at the highest point of the Cold War: “We will bury you”. Now we all know that what he really said was: “We will outlast you”, and we all know of the consequences that this poor rendition generated during such a tense time in history.

In July 1945 after the United States issued the Potsdam Declaration demanding the surrender of Japan in World War 2, Japanese Prime Minister Kantaro Suzuki called a press conference and in a statement he said: “No comment. We are still thinking about it”. Unfortunately, the interpreter’s rendition was: “We are ignoring it in contempt”. We all know what happened next.

In 1980 Willie Ramírez, an 18-year old, was admitted to a Florida hospital in a comatose state. At the time of admission, an interpreter made a mistake and translated the Spanish term “intoxicado” which means poisoned or having an allergic reaction as: “intoxicated”. Willie, who was suffering from an intercerebral hemorrhage was only treated for an intentional drug overdose. As a result, he was left quadriplegic.

St. Jerome, the patron saint of translators, studied Hebrew so he could translate the Old Testament into Latin. His translation contained a famous mistake, When Moses comes back from Mount Sinai his head has “radiance”, in Hebrew: “karan”; but because Hebrew is written without vowels, St. Jerome read: “keren” which means “horned”. Because of this mistake we have many paintings and sculptures of Moses with horns.

Finally, we all remember Thamsanqa Jantjie, the Sign Language interpreter at the Nelson Mandela funeral. He made meaningless Sign Language motions during the ceremony for unknown reasons. He has since been committed to a psychiatric hospital for schizophrenia.

The lesson is clear. As professional interpreters we have to protect our profession from paraprofessionals, “wanna-be interpreters”, ignorant clients, and unscrupulous agencies, but we also have to watch what we do and say. Nobody is above error, so our only choice is to continue to practice and study, to honestly decline those assignments that we are not ready for, and to look after our colleagues in the booth, the courtroom, the negotiations table, or any other venue where we may be providing our services. I now invite you to share with the rest of us other interpreting mistakes, big or small, yours or a colleague’s, in the spirit of helping our colleagues so that we all learn from each other’s mistakes.

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§ 42 Responses to The biggest interpreting mistakes in history.

  • Tony, a good summary. But I disagree with the contention that a more accurate translation could have prevented the USA from dropping the first atomic bombs.
    – The fierce resistance by the Japanese defenders on Okinawa, Saipan, and elsewhere, and the mass suicides by both military and civilians, had convinced the USA that the only way Japan would end the war was to be utterly defeated.
    – Harry Truman had been briefed not only on the bomb but on the expected human cost of invading the home islands. Casualties were expected to approach a million people.
    – Truman became convinced that the bomb might shock the Japanese and cause them to surrender earlier.
    – The Allies had sent very clear messages, publicly and through diplomatic channels, that unconditional surrender was the only acceptable option.
    – The Japanese government had multiple opportunities to surrender. There were factions in the government that were arguing that possibility. But the leaders in charge would not consider it. They continued to advocate total war, expecting the Allies to settle eventually for some type of negotiated surrender. Their objective was to leave the Emperor in place and avoid occupation and humiliation.
    – The Japanese response to the final ultimatum was deliberately vague. To call it an insult was not wrong. The worst that could be said is, the translator could have mentioned that the term had more than one meaming.
    – But none of that mattered. The USA called for unconditional surrender and threatened dire consequences. The Japanese did not comply.

    In the other stories you cite, a different translation could have altered the course of events, or at least the public’s perception. Not this time.

    • Fred says:

      Steven, what you said is true from a political angle. However, I believe, the highlight of this article is to point out how language interpretation affects understanding – that is to transmit correct communication with the intended meaning which is most important, besides conveying the original words used to the best of equivalence in the target language – in order to avoid misunderstanding and compound our human tendency to make conclusions full of errors and elaborate ethnocentric judgement that skewed towards poorly conceived stereotypes. That was what happened to the Japanese after the bombs were dropped – it was believed that the Japanese ‘deserved’ such an inhumane treatment to teach them a lesson.

  • Doris Ganser says:

    Because of a mistranslation of English “corn” > Korn (all kinds of cereals), Germans ate corn in many forms (flour, grits, etc.) after WWII, a commodity previously only fed to pigs (but it was better than sawdust that had been added to bread.)

  • André Csihás, FCCI says:

    You are absolutely correct, Tony: Interpreting is a very difficult —and challenging— profession.

    As interpreters, we never know what the speaker or witness will say and therefore we must always be ready for action by continually honing our skills. This is partly achieved by reading every possible shred of information about a specific subject with enough interest about it to jot down key words and —hopefully— memorize them to recall later when needed.

    The language of court interpretation has very specific wording that is precisely tailored to the situation being discussed, and even though it is a fairly frozen language style, it still is the correct and necessary means of communicating between the witness and the court. Those of us who also interpret for the courts, must pay close attention to what is being said in order to keep the record straight as well as protect our profession, because we are out there, in open court and if it is a major case there will be lots of people listening to our performance. In most cases, the attorneys will speak with a higher register than the witnesses who might be using slang and therefore we have to adjust our vocabulary instantly in order to transmit the meaning correctly.

    In my personal experience as a court interpreter, I soon found out that a mistake is very quickly questioned by either the court or by the attorney, —provided they speak and understand Spanish— or by me, and upon realizing it I have said and admitted that: “The interpreter stands corrected”.

    Practice and dedication make us better interpreters but it will not happen overnight.

    Fortunately, conference interpretation is more forgiving because as long as the message is the same, the language can vary, but that is not to say that it is easier to do. Again, we as interpreters don’t know who will say what. Some speakers can exercise a higher level of erudition than others, so we in turn must also be ready to adjust our vocabulary to the existing situation. Conference interpretation turns us into the friends of the euphemisms, synonyms and antonyms, but enemies of false friends, those pesky words that sound similar but differ in meaning, such as your example of “intoxicado”.

    Again, practice, persistence and the development of our own strategies will gradually improve our skills.

    Finally, the testing requirements for all levels of court and conference interpretation cannot be emphasized enough. Many of the courses and their corresponding exams are rigorous and difficult, but that is precisely the reason why they are are established: They protect and enhance our profession by separating the wheat from the chaff.

    André Csihás, FCCI

  • The following two anecdotes are not about interpreter mistakes, but mistakes made by people who thought they did not need an interpreter to convey their messages. After he lost re-election, President Jimmy Carter went to Puerto Rico to address a group of dignitaries that from the Americas. He decided to address them in Spanish, and he opened his remarks by telling them; “Yo soy un pato cojo”, a very literal translation of the “lame duck” idiom, made all the more tragic by the fact that “pato” is also a slang term for gay or queer in Puerto Rico!
    In one the Miss Universe Pageants back in the 80’s, which was held in South Korea that year, there was a Miss Puerto Rico who was considered the front-runner for that event that year. She had scored the highest in every portion up to the final event – the dreaded question. She declined the use of the interpreter, and Bob Barker proceeded to ask her; “After all of this is over, what do you plan to do for a career?” She looked at Barker and the audience and said; “Oh, I like very much Korea! Korea very pretty and the people very nice!” As if her mistake wasn’t bad enough, Barker decided to mock her mercilessly, and she broke into tears when she realized her mistake. She came in third.

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  • Matro says:

    Reblogged this on MATRO.

  • George Bernard Sperber, Ph. D. says:

    Well. I can tell about a mistake I made once, while interpreting through a video conference system, from French into Portuguese, a meeting of psychiatrists and “users” of their services (psychopaths, to say the less), held simultaneously at the University Campinas, Brazil, (where I live) and the University of Quebec, Canada. The Canadian speaker (a psychiatrist) spoke French and used the words “santé mentale” (literally = mental health) and I understood “sentimental”! Nobody noticed anything, as I understood my error and had the opportunity to correct it the next time these words were used, and of course they were used very frequently during the conference.

  • marzolian says:

    Another slight mistranslation that is still going on is the use of the phrase, “Death to America!” That has been a fixture in public life in Iran since the revolution that overthrew the Shah of Iran in the 1970’s. But it is not meant exactly how it sounds. In official translations it is rendered as “Down with America.”

    Visitors have also noted that some Iranians say things like, “Death to my teacher!” for assigning too much homework, or “Death to Traffic!”

  • Roberta says:

    Thank you for summarizing these mistakes ” all in one place.” I’ve collected them over the years (often in different places) to share with my students. They are excellent examples of what can go wrong if we don’t continuously monitor ourselves.

  • Jan says:

    That reminded me of my horror story: In a product workshop between a supplier of a big fraud detection and prevention system and the CEOs of all notable insurance companies operating in Poland (a hefty sum was at stake), during a Q&A session, somebody asked the supplier whether they saw a decrease of fraud cases after the introduction of their product in the UK and whether they already have any experience in cooperation with law enforcement in Central European countries. The representative answered along these lines: “We actually saw a sharp rise in the number of fraud cases, but that’s because there were so many undetected incidents prior to the introduction of our system; and yes, given the large number of immigrants from the CE to the UK, we have already established ties with police forces in the region, including Poland.”
    And the guy who was sitting next to me in the booth translated it as:
    “We actually saw a sharp rise in the number of fraud cases, but this is because we currently have many immigrants from Poland in the UK”.
    As if “Polish jokes” weren’t bad enough…

    • George Bernard Sperber says:

      As if what happened so many years ago durig Jimmy Carter’s visit to Poland wasn’t enough…

  • A word in one language has a different meaning in another language, that when the interpreter role become crucial. When you are interpreting for a population, knowing their culture is as important than speaking their language. I am a freelance interpreter for Haitian Creole and French and I can tell you I had some challenges. The mode of interpretation also play a role like simultaneous vs consecutive. I use simultaneous mode, for me it’s easier and I can pause. As a medical interpreter, I can request the meaning of a word or repetition if I am not sure or unfamiliar with a word.

  • José Castaño Clavero says:

    As a profesional translator of documents, a bit easier job than an interpreter, I found that very often the original texts were very badly written and one had to risk an interpretation nearly always out of intuition. The mistakes were inevitable. If that happens with written texts I can imagine what can happen with spoken ones. We have to be aware that the interpreter doesn’t want to make mistakes just for fun. He has a profesional conscience, and ethics, and, importantly, aesthetics too.

  • These mistakes are very costly. This should be a point to deliver to translators that even the best ones can make mistakes, and every one has their share of horror stories of translations and interpretations gone wrong. It is best for professionals to see this as a learning experience, study what went wrong, and do their best not to let it happen again.

    And Jose is correct. Interpreters do not do these mistakes out for fun as professional training has ingrained in each interpreter professionalism and ethics on how one should conduct oneself during a project.

  • Elena Ekkert says:

    I just read a Russian translation of an English text where the word “makeup”, which, judging by the context, meant reconciliation (примирение) was translated as “Макияж”, which means the makeup you put on your face. Oh my.

  • Rainer Barczaitis says:

    The term “rogue state” was rendered in German as “Schurkenstaat”. Now while “Schurke” is one possible meaning of “rogue”, it does not encompass the connotation “dangerous because not acting according to accepted rules”. So George Bush (to whom the term was, wrongly, attributed) was for once indicted for not quite the right reason in many German media channels. “Schurke” is perceived rather as “villain” or “scoundrel” in German.

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  • Ian says:

    I think in your first example you are being too hard on the interpreter. It seems to be an acceptable paraphrase. Certainly the meaning is identical.

  • Angy says:

    We will bury you is the most accurate translation of the phrase – “we will show you the Kuzka’s mother” (word by word translation) because Kuz’ka is the Russian name for Anisoplia austriaca anyone who can understand russian can switch to Russian and see that it’s true. And the female beetle of Anisoplia austriaca lays eggs in soil at a depth of 8-20 cm, and to bury means to put (a corpse) in the ground or a vault… So the most accurate translation ever.

  • Kevin Kelly says:

    I am disappointed that the so-called disastrous interpretation mistake with Carter in Poland was included in this list. This “incident” was artificially blown out of proportion by media and political enemies of Jimmy Carter. I am personally acquainted with the interpreter in question (one of the finest professionals I’ve ever known) and have discussed the incident with him.

    • I can’t document this, but I’ve heard that Jody Powell and/or Hamilton Jordan made sure that the interpreter was not on Mr. Carter’s plane. So he came to the session much colder (literally and figuratively, perhaps) than would have been the case otherwise.

  • JuliaP says:

    I agree with Kevin and Paul about the incident in Poland. In fact, it all could have been easily avoided had the organizers used common sense when putting it all together. Thankfully, they at least learned many lessons that day, and those mistakes were not repeated.

  • One of my favorite anecdotes :

    Brukarawaka, anyone? Spanish Forum

    Posted by Jack Doughty on Jun 19, 2002

    To emphasize the point about making this string international, here is a story that was posted in the Spanish forum on May 28th by Francis Icaza. It\’s mostly in English and the Spanish parts should not be too difficult to follow.

    Two interpreters are in the booth, at a hotel in Miami, for a Human Resources conference. The speaker, Mr. Tomodashi from Tokyo, is at the podium. He has sent a message before his arrival advising the organisers that he will address the conference in English and that no Japanese interpreters will be necessary; that his English version need only be translated into Spanish for the Latin-Americans in the audience.

    His subject: Relationships between workers from different castes in Japan.

    He smiles, clears his throat, takes a sip of water and speaks:

    \”Sank you werymoch. Ai mos provai you wi\’ a detaiurld (detailed) espranation of urelashoship betooeen brukarawaka and wacarawaka in Japan.\”

    In the booth, the interpreter who has the microphone considers this first phrase and begins to interpret:

    \”Muchísimas gracias. Debo proveerles una explicación detallada sobre la relación entre los…\” (aqui hace silencio y se pregunta: ¿Qué carajo es un brukarawaka y, ya que me lo estoy preguntado, que mierda es un wacarawaka!!!???) No hay tiempo para decifrar lo que pudiera ser. Su colega en la cabina ofrece sólo aquella mirada de labio inferior caído, hombros encogidos y palmas hacia el cielo, que dice \”A mi que me registren!!!\”

    The speaker continues and is by now describing the daily, practical difficulties that HR managers in his country face when it comes to brukarawakas and wacarawakas…

    The interpreter has to make a decision, time is of the essence and his/her short term memory is being tasked to its limit as he/she stores the information the speaker has uttered since the appearance of the brukarawaka/wacarawaka brick wall. In fact, the speaker has not stopped speaking and is hurrying on with his dissertation.

    Numbers, names of cities and governmental agencies roll off his tongue like bowling balls thrown by professionals at the world bowling championship trials. He has Power Point slides by the dozen, but none that would help the interpreters decipher his meaning of these two fateful words. He barrels along, not at a clip, not at a considerable speed, but with abandon. A suicidal helter skelter, headlong rush towards self-immolation by verb conjugation. For all else, his presentation is complete, informative and well researched. He is very good and very fast.

    \”You mus unastan, brukarawaka urive this pa\’ Tokyo (points to the right). Wacarawaka urive this pa´ Tokyo… (points to the left). Brukarawaka haf much purobrem wi´ Porice an wacarawaka, wer… no so much purobrem wi´ Porice bot much domesic wiorence…\”

    At this point, the interpreter has decided, by default, that the brukarawakas and the wacarawakas are two ethnic groups in Japan who, to this date, were unknown to this interpreter. There can be no other explanation. Light! Illumination! Of course… O.K. Let\’s get to work, thinks the interpreter: The interpreter releases the cough cut button and issues this rendition:

    Deben comprender que los brukarawaka viven en esta parte de Tokyo y los wacarawaka viven en aquella parte de Tokyo. Los brukarawaka tienen muchos problemas con las autoridades de policia y los wacarawaka, no tanto problemas con la policia, sino más bien problemas de violencia doméstica…\”

    The interpreter continues using this rendition for brukarawakas and wakarawakas throughout the speaker\’s address almost to its conclusion, but then, from another conference room at the same venue, a colleague stops by to say a quick hello to his friends. He stands behind the booth and listens to the rendition above. Brukarawaka, wacarawaka, Kobe, Hokkaido… He suddenly realises that his colleagues have mis-heard the speaker, that they been confused by a strong accent, and he quickly whispers a correction:

    \”No, no!!!\” he whispers urgently, \”Not brukarawakas and wacarawakas… It\’s Blue Collar Workers and White Collar Workers!!!\”.

    There is nothing to be done for the gaffe. It\’s too late! The damage is done by now. All that is left is for the interpreter to let the audience know that a mistake has been made and that they should be advised that brukarawaka and wacarawaka should be understood to mean Blue Collar workers and White Collar workers. But, alas, the interpreter chooses the least appropriate moment to apologise to the audience for the error. The correction is made as the honourable speaker is leaving the stage and walking towards the steps. The listeners hear the interpreter say:

    \”Con el permiso de los asistentes, solicitamos nos disculpen por un error cometido y en lugar de brukarawakas y wacarawakas, sepan que el caballero se refería a trabajadores manuales u obreros, conocidos como trabajadores de cuello azul y a trabajadores de cuello blanco. Ofrecemos nuestras más sinceras disculpas, gracias.\”

    The audience, having sat through the presentation with the gravest of expressions on their collective faces, as if understanding what they were hearing through their recievers, for the last 30 minutes. \”…the brukarawakas this and the wacarawakas that,…\” á la \”Emperor´s New Clothes\”, realise the fools they have been and, all at the exact same time, burst into a loud, conference room-wide guaffaw. They\’re rolling in the aisles, laughing primarily at themselves. They slap their thighs, they wipe tears from their eyes and look at each other and laugh even louder than before.

    The speaker cannot understand. 150 HR managers after having quietly sat through his dissertation, some even taking notes, all suddenly find his presentation so hilarious. He is irate and confused at the same time. His breeding does not allow expressions of outrage. Still wearing the lapel microphone, he asks the next speaker approaching the stage for an explanation. \”Why dey uraf? Wha\’ so fonny??\”. No answer but the drooping lower lip, the shrugged shoulders and the palms to the sky. There is nothing to be done.

    • George Bernard Sperber says:

      Well, dear colleagues, I once had the chance to make a similar, perhaps even more hilarious mistake, while accompanying a group of Japanese visitors during their visit to a TV station in São Paulo, Brazil. Having walked for more than one hour on the premises of TV Cultura, we arrived at a small auditorium, and on e of the Japanese visitors said in a loud and clear voice: “I am very tired. May I shit here?” Thanks Goodness I understood what he meant, because I knew that for Japanese speakers it is very difficult to pronounce an initial “S”. I answered: “Of course, Sir, you may sit here”.
      À propos: Do you know what the Japanese expression “roviretero” means? I do!

  • Peter Petri says:

    Not long ago, I was interpreting for the Ambassador of Israel to my home country at a menora inauguration ceremony, attended by an audience comprised mostly of Jews, some being descendants of death-camp survivors. The ambassador (not a native speaker of English) concluded his speech by saying: “I wish this country a more beautiful future”, which I translated as “Boldogabb jövőt kívánok ennek az országnak”, which is “I wish this country a happier future”. Half-consciously, I said it because the word-by-word translation of the original words would have been the very slogan (“Szebb jövőt”) of Hungary’s far right political party, known for its anti-Semitic ideas. Someone who understood English came to me after the ceremony to thank me for the wording. Not that I am that wise, but being on the alert and knowing the cultural/political environment can sometimes come in very handy.

  • Sasha says:

    re: “leave” and “abandon”, the thing is, it is the same word in Czech, and I imagine maybe also in Polish. Some mistakes are better understood by speakers of the relevant language.
    I used to translate the lyrics of “Heidenroeslein” wrongly (the rose said”I will sting you”), now I know only a bee can sting. A rose pricks…

  • interpretva says:

    I asked a Lead Certified Interpreter at the courthouse if it’s acceptable for an interpreter to say the word in the same language if she doesn’t know the meaning of a particular word?


    El hombre era bien acérrimo en su comportamiento”. Is it acceptable to interpret……

    “The man was very acérrimo in his behavior”.

    The “certified” interpreter said that it’s only acceptable if you are taking your oral certification test because the tendency would be for the test taking interpreter to get hung up on that one word and miss the rest of the rendition.

    She said points would obviously be deducted from your test for saying it in the same language but it’s still better to get 1 point deducted than a bunch of points for missing the entire rendition.

    She said in a real life situation the correct thing to do would be to stop the session and ask for clarification of the word. How would you handle this situation if you were simultaneously interpreting as opposed to consecutively interpreting? Is it ever appropriate to say a word you are not sure of the meaning in the same language or would this be a big mistake? Any light on this issue would be very much appreciated.

  • […] Več o tem naslednjič. Vir (link): The biggest interpreting mistakes in history […]

  • […] SAD Američki predsednik Džimi Karter se 1976. godine obratio Poljacima i svoj govor je započeo izjavom: >> Tog jutra sam otputovao iz Sjedinjenih Država.<< Tumač je to preveo kao: >> Kada sam napustio Sjedinjene Države (u smislu da se on neće nikad više vratiti)<<. Prisutni su se nasmejali očitoj grešci, ali stvari su se još više zakomplikovale u nastavku predsednikovog govora, kada je rekao: >> Zanima me vaše mišljenje i želeo bih da razumem vaše želje za budućnost…<< Isti tumač je izjavu preveo: >> Želim polno opštiti sa Poljacima…<< Zatim je tumač nastavio sa kritikom poljskog ustava. Do takvih grešaka, razume se, ne bi smelo da dođe nikada na tom nivou, ali se svejedno dogode. Rusija Ovo nas podseća na slavni >>kiks<< u govoru Hruščova u poljskoj ambasadi u Moskvi, gde je njegova izjava u vezi sa Sjedinjenim Dražavama, zapadnim svetom i vrhuncem hladnog rata bila prevedena: >>Sahranićemo vas.<< Svi znamo da je u stvari rekao: >> Preživećemo vas.<< Poznate su nam posledice, koje su nastale usled lošeg prevoda u trenutku napete situacije tokom hladnog rata. Više o tome u nastavku. Izvor (link) :The biggest interpreting mistakes in history […]

  • Mpho Sesiu says:


  • […] o esperienza, improvvisandosi in una vera e propria figura professionale. Anche perché di storie dell’orrore è pieno. E, come sappiamo, la professionalità si […]

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