Credit: Afif Ramdhasuma

7 translation mistakes that almost ruined everything

Published on November 14, 2023

Amateurish translations can be a recipe for disaster, especially when international politics or your business future are at stake!

Traduttore, traditore! is an old Italian saying that roughly means "translators are traitors". However this saying has nothing to do with wartime propaganda or chauvinistic sentiments, and it’s instead a rather lighthearted take on the inherent difficulty of a translator’s line of work .

You might wonder, how bad can you make things with a bad translation? Well, there’s no need to wonder, the profession is full of hysterical stories about the craziest translation blunders that almost managed to ruin whole thriving businesses and reputations.


Pepsi’s Black magic

Credit: Tim Mossholder

Around the 1960s, Pepsi decided to expand its business to China only to find a literal linguistic barrier that almost ruined the whole venture . At the time, Pepsi’s slogan in English-speaking countries was "Come Alive With the Pepsi Generation". However, when directly translated into Chinese, the slogan read something like "Pepsi brings your ancestors back from the dead", turning the favorite cola of millions into a powerful dark magic concoction that - as one could expect - wasn’t very well received by the Chinese population, who just happen to hold their deceased ancestors in great esteem.


The mighty… Rabbit’ of ‘Olland?

Credit: Enq 1998

When Napoleon’s brother was crowned king of Holland in 1806, he was eager to please the local populace and quickly decided to change his name to something more fitting, from Ludovic to Lodewijk. However, he was such a bad speaker of Dutch that, during the coronation ceremony, he ended up declaring himself the "Rabbit of 'Olland", instead of "King of Holland".


Exploding pens may get you pregnant

Credit: Aaron Burden

This one is absolutely hilarious, and just like the Pepsi gaffe, it shows the dangers of localizing new products when you aren’t fully aware of the language . When Parker Pens decided to expand its business into Mexico, it mistranslated the company’s current slogan "It won’t leak in your pocket and embarrass you" - surprising by itself, since I would expect that to be the bare minimum in order to have a working pen - into "It won’t leak in your pocket and make you pregnant", due to a confusion with the similarity between the false cognates "embarazar" (get pregnant) in Spanish and "embarrass" in English.


The hilarious Polish adventures of Jimmy Carter

Credit: Tuntematon, Valkoisen talon valokuvaajat (01/20/1977 - 01/20/1981), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

In 1977, during a trip to Poland, U.S. President Jimmy Carter took an involuntary part in a series of incredibly funny translation fails . His amateur interpreter was terribly bad at speaking Polish - and even understanding English very well apparently - because when the president mentioned that he had left the U.S. that morning, the interpreter said to the Polish audience that "he had left his country, never to return". To make matters even worse, Carter’s enthusiastic appeal to the Polish people was mistranslated again and the interpreter said that the president wanted to "get to know the Poles carnally".


"Turn It Loose"

Credit: Jen Theodore

When beer brand Coors tried to get into the Spanish market, it failed to hire a decent translator, since the company’s tagline "Turn It Loose" was translated into something akin to "Suffer From Diarrhea", something you definitely don’t want to see in a beer can from overseas.


General Flatulence

Credit: Thomas Kelley

When General Electric released a new partnership brand in France under the acronym GPT, no one realized that, in French, this acronym can be read as "J’ai pété," or "I farted." You can imagine that if they just hired a French teenager, they would have discovered their mistake soon enough , saving themselves a lot of time and money.


No text fail

Credit: Miika Laaksonen

A Swedish non-prescription drug used to alleviate stomach pains called Samarin wanted to market its product to Arabic countries with a text-free three-panel comic strip that showed a man with a hurting stomach in its first picture, the same man drinking Samarin in the second, and a happy and healthy man in the last one. But they forgot to take into account that in the Arab world people read both books and comic strips from the right to the left! So, not even avoiding text whatsoever saved them from screwing up their new business expansion.

If you found these translation stories funny, stay around! We will keep updating quality content pertaining to language, words, and names from all over the world.