The Top 5 Translation Mistakes of 2012

As another year comes to an end it is instructive to take a look back at some of the biggest headlines of 2012, and, of course, the translations and localization errors that accompanied those events. The need for organizations to have translations proofread by a native speaker becomes obvious when a seemingly small language slip has far-reaching consequences. From promoting the Olympic Games to registering voters, 2012 was not lacking in translation errors. 

Here’s a list (that no company wants to be on) of the top five noteworthy lapses in translation and localization in 2012:


1. Wrong Election Date for Spanish Voters

Officials in Maricopa County, Arizona mistakenly printed the Election Day date as November 8, not November 6, in the Spanish translation of the official government document not once but twice in two weeks.  The first occurrence, in which the date was printed on voter materials, was caught after being circulated to about 50 voters.  However, in the second occurrence the wrong date was printed on Spanish bookmarks that were widely distributed across the county.  Had this translation error not been brought to the attention of the media, election results in the county could have been greatly affected.

Date Translation Mistake


2. Translation Mistakes on Math Exams Add Up

    New York state standardized tests produced by Pearson contained over twenty different mistakes in the translated math tests. In most cases, the errors in translation resulted in questions where there was no right answer. In at least two cases, there was more than one correct answer. There were errors in every language into which the state has tests translated  — Korean, Spanish, Chinese, Haitian Creole and Russian — as well as four errors in Braille versions. The mistranslated questions were identified and accounted for when grading but the schools, along with Pearson, will have to review proofreading protocols for future tests. 

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    3. Google Translate Causes Trouble for Obama’s Campaign

      During Obama’s re-election campaign the Government Accountability Institute  (GAI) reported details of widespread foreign money flowing to President Obama’s re-election campaign. A further review of the report found that the sole example of a foreign-national donor giving to the Obama campaign was, in fact, based on a translation error. The GAI reported that a Norwegian blogger posted a link to the Obama campaigns Donate page and when another blogger opined that non-U.S. citizens cannot contribute because of American law, the blogger responded in Norwegian, “Hadde jeg i praksis kunne gitt penger til Obama hadde jeg gjort det.” The GIA, with the help of Google Translate, relayed this statement as “I have in practice given money to Obama, I had done it.”  However, ThinkProgress confirmed with three Norwegian speakers, including a University of North Dakota professor of Norwegian language, that the quote actually means quite the opposite.  The quote actually reads as “If I actually could have given money to Obama, I would have done it.”  A translation error coming from a respected conservative report could have had devastating effects on the Presidential Election.



      4. A Mistranslated Greeting for Olympic Spectators

      In efforts to welcome visitors to London for the 2012 Summer Olympics, a local shopping center displayed welcome banners and t-shirts that read “Welcome to London” in languages from all over the world.  However, the Arabic banner didn’t come out exactly as planned.  The Council for Arab-British Understanding said the Westfield Stratford Shopping Center message was backwards and spaced inaccurately in Arabic. An English equivalent of the sign and staff t-shirts would read something like “N O D N O L O T E M O C L E W”.  Westfield apologized and reprinted the welcome messages.

      London Olympics

      5. Celebrities Show Support for Deaf Audience with the Wrong Signs       

      Even celebrities get lost in interpretation.  Natalie Portman and Johnny Depp starred in Paul McCartney’s music video “My Valentine” earlier this year where they showed their support for the song’s deaf audience by signing the lyrics.  However, both actors used the wrong signs throughout the song.  Deaf music fans, including  the British Deaf Association, have pointed out that at one point in the video Depp signs the word  “enemy” instead of “valentine” and later both he and Portman make an embarrassing error by signing the word “tampon” instead of “appear.”  Despite the confusion the signs caused, which may be a result of British and American sign languages being different, Depp and Portman were still praised for highlighting the use of sign language in the video. 

       Johnny Depp

      Natalie Portman

      So as 2012 comes to an end it is important to keep one thing in mind when working in multiple languages: work with professional translators and editors. Though some translation mistakes are comical, their consequences can be costly in many ways.