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When global translation goes wrong

For years, English-speaking visitors to Beijing could enjoy taking their chances with dishes such as Wood Moustache Meat or Red Burned Lion Head. But now the city’s government is making dining out a little more boring, by producing an official book of translated dishes. They’ve translated 3000 traditional food items into English to reduce confusion.

Not surprisingly, the move prompted plenty of discussions in the Chinese media and global translation sites. We’re sure many travellers will miss their Four Glad Meat Balls, Hairy Beans, or Drunk Crabs. It was also a tough task for the translators. Food is traditionally a big part of Chinese culture, but many ingredients and dishes don’t have English equivalents.

Spotting amusing errors is a popular sport for many tourists. Lonely Planet even runs an annual contest asking people to take photos of global translation mistakes. These range from a sign urging people to “take luggage of foreigner” to the “Translate Service Error” restaurant – an illustration of the risks of machine translation!

But this type of mistake can cause serious problems for companies marketing overseas. Choosing an inappropriate product name is one potential pitfall. Examples include the American baby food brand Gerber which means “to vomit” in French! The Italian mineral water brand Traficante presumably didn’t realise this meant “drug dealer” when it launched in Spanish markets.

And some advertising is simply confusing. When Parker Pens launched in Mexico, it attempted to advertise that its pens wouldn’t leak in your pocket and embarrass you. Unfortunately, it chose the wrong verb embarazar, thus helpfully reassuring users the pens wouldn’t get them pregnant!

And interpreting is a notoriously tricky job. Pity the poor interpreter, who when a reporter tried to ask Boris Yeltsin if he was “thin-skinned”, mistranslated this and asked him if he was a “thick-skinned hippopotamus”!

Of course, hiring professional translators is the best way to cut the risk of errors. And while it can be tempting to cut global translation costs by using machines, they are much more likely to produce over literal results. Chicken without sex life might be a literal equivalent of the Chinese dish, but we think Spring Chicken sounds more appetising!

Do share your favourite translation mistakes with us…

Hazel Mollison

Hazel Mollison edits and writes for the Lingo24 blog. After studying Italian and German at Cambridge University, she worked as a journalist for five years with regional and national newspapers. She enjoys writing about languages, translation, online marketing, and helping small businesses explore new opportunities.

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