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Lost in Translation: Costly Mistakes You Don’t Want to Make

Translation mistakes can be costly in terms of financial losses and damage to a company’s reputation. In this article we will look in to three of the costliest translation mistakes ever known and what we can learn from them.

HSBC’s $10 Million Typo

In 2009, HSBC, one of the world’s largest banking and financial services companies, launched a rebranding campaign with the slogan “Assume Nothing.” However, when the slogan was translated into various languages, including Chinese, it was mistakenly translated as “Do Nothing” or “Idle Gossip” due to a typo made by the translator. The mistake was costly, as HSBC had to spend $10 million to correct the error and relaunch the campaign.

Lesson Learned: Proofreading is crucial, especially when dealing with large-scale projects like a rebranding campaign. Hiring professional translators with expertise in the target language and culture is also essential to avoid such costly mistakes.

The $71 Million Translation Error

In 2012, the Spanish government discovered a translation error in a contract for the construction of a high-speed railway between Madrid and Barcelona. The contract was initially written in Spanish and translated into Catalan, but the translator made an error that inflated the project cost by €6 billion ($7.1 billion). The error was due to the translator using the word “milers” (thousands) instead of “milions” (millions) when translating the contract. The mistake was discovered after the contract was signed, and it cost the Spanish government €20 million ($23.8 million) to correct the error.

Lesson Learned: Accuracy is paramount in legal and technical translations. Hiring professional translators with expertise in the subject matter and language is vital to ensure the translation is accurate and error-free.

The Million-Dollar Comma

In 2017, a court in Canada ruled in favour of a group of dairy drivers who sued their employer, Oakhurst Dairy, for overtime pay. The case hinged on the interpretation of a comma in Maine’s overtime law, which stated that the following activities were not eligible for overtime pay: “The canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of (1) Agricultural produce; (2) Meat and fish products; and (3) Perishable foods.” The drivers argued that the comma before “or distribution” meant that “packing for shipment or distribution” was a separate activity and, therefore, eligible for overtime pay. The court agreed, and Oakhurst Dairy had to pay its drivers $5 million in back wages.

Lesson Learned: Punctuation can significantly impact the meaning of a sentence, and it is essential to pay attention to the details when translating legal documents. Professional translators with expertise in legal terminology and punctuation rules can help avoid costly mistakes like this one.

In conclusion, these three examples illustrate the importance of accuracy, attention to detail, and expertise in translation. By learning from these examples, we can minimize the risks of translation errors and ensure that our translations are accurate and effective. To avoid costly mistakes, it is crucial to hire professional translators with subject matter expertise and knowledge of the target language and culture. Proofreading and attention to detail can also help catch errors before they become costly.