It wasn’t until we spoke to some of the experts on this page that we realised how difficult interpreting actually was. Imagine having to repeat word for word what someone is saying as they speak at the speed of normal conversation; now repeat what they are saying in an entirely different language. With the pressure, the audience and two languages going round your head, there’s no doubt about it – interpreters have to be highly skilled and are bound to make mistakes. With the power to completely change the meaning of a sentence, we take a look back at six of the most famous interpreting blunders.
I don’t understand a word you are saying
In any UN assembly the English booth will receive a translated version of all speeches so they can read and listen to what is being said. This came in handy when Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad stood up to address the assembly, without the aid of his Farsi interpreter who hadn’t arrived. The UN interpreter was left in a difficult decision – did she leave him to talk, or try and read the speech in time with what the president was saying, not understanding a word of his native tongue? She chose the latter and had got half way through the speech when the Farsi interpreter arrived.
The 71 million dollar misinterpretation
There are some instances where misinterpretations can lead to big mistakes. In 1980 18 year old Willie Ramirez was admitted to hospital in Florida, his family and friends left trying to describe his symptoms to a bilingual member of staff. Unfortunately the word ‘intoxicado’, meaning poisoned in Spanish was interpreted as ‘intoxicated’ – a completely different condition. Ramirez was actually suffering an intracerebral haemorrhage and the delay in his treatment left him a quadriplegic. After an appeal he received a malpractice settlement of 71 million US dollars from the hospital.
Lusting for the future
Lust and desire; two similar but also entirely different words, as emphasised by US President Carter in his famous blunder. Much to the media’s delight, when Carter travelled to Poland in 1971, his Russian interpreter made some critical mistakes during his speech. Instead of ‘leaving the United States this morning’, Polish viewers heard the President saying he had been ‘abandoned by the United States’. If this wasn’t bad enough instead of sharing his ‘desires for the future’, he revealed his ‘lusts for the future’ – a whole different kettle of fish.
Misunderstanding in the Middle East
Another rather serious misinterpretation, in 2006 Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinesad called for Israel to be ‘wiped off the map’. A serious statement to make, this understandably caused uproar, however what he ACTUALLY said was ‘the regime occupying Jerusalem must vanish from the page of time.’ Sadly the damage had already been done.
We will bury you
We all know the US can be a little patriotic, so when soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev issued the now famous phrase ‘we will bury you’ during a speech in 1956 at the height of the Cold War, tensions ran high. In retrospect, a more accurate translation of the speech would be ‘we will be present when you are buried’. Although this isn’t exactly a friendly statement, it is a common saying in the Soviet Union and is the equivalent to ‘we are the champions’ or other harmless patriotism.
In 2009, HSBC spent £6.5 million rebranding their ‘assume nothing’ campaign, after realising it had been translated as ‘do nothing’ in various countries across the world.
If you think you have what it takes to work in interpreting, why not take a look at the courses listed on our site and learn from the experts? On the other hand, if you can think of any famous blunders we have missed, or have made any of your own, get in touch on Facebook or Twitter – we love hearing from you!
Jane McGuire received her BA (English) from the University of Loughborough. A yoga enthusiast with a sweet tooth, in her spare time you will probably find Jane in the gym or online shopping.