Language Insight’s translators are pros at ensuring their work is never lost in translation. You might think that a small error is neither here nor there – but in fact, when you’re an interpreter or translator, any mistake you make has the power to change the world. To prove this point, has compiled a list of mistranslations that really did go down in history for all the wrong reasons.

Is there life on Mars?

If the images being sent back to Earth by the various rovers based on Mars are anything to go by, the answer to David Bowie’s question would appear to be no. Indeed, it seems unlikely there have ever been civilised life forms on the red planet.

However, people thought very differently back in 1877, when Italian astronomer Giovanni Virginio Schiaparelli reported seeing “canali” on Mars. The scientist was referring to naturally-occurring channels on the surface of the planet, but the English translation of his work stated he had discovered “canals” – or manmade waterways.

This prompted the theory that an ancient Martian civilisation had battled to save their planet by constructing huge canals to carry water across it. In turn, the theory inspired countless sci-fi novels, including The War of The Worlds. While Schiaparelli was probably disheartened to see his observations so wildly misinterpreted, at least it gave the world some of its finest science fiction.

Get Carter (a new translator)

When US president Jimmy Carter paid a visit to Poland in 1977, all eyes were on him. At the time, the Cold War was still raging and this was the first time an American leader had conducted a press conference from behind the iron curtain.

The problem was, the man Carter’s team hired to act as his Polish interpreter was more experienced at producing translations than dealing with the spoken form of the language. As a result, much of what the president said was lost in translation – and then some.

When Carter said he had left the US to travel to Poland that morning, his interpreter mistakenly stated the president had abandoned his homeland forever. That was just the tip of the iceberg, though.

After Carter announced he wanted to learn the Polish people’s opinions and “desires for the future”, his interpreter translated his words so they suggested Carter desired the Poles carnally. Given this bombshell, it’s perhaps not surprising the visit has gone down as one of the most embarrassing moments in diplomatic history.

Finger-licking painful

Of course, when you’re an interpreter you usually only have one chance to get it right and any slip-up you make in the moment could go down in history. Translations are something you can take a lot more time over. So, when it comes to the efforts of some multinational businesses to translate their advertising campaigns for a foreign market, you would think every possible care would be taken to ensure no mistakes were made.

Yet it seems this is not the case. Here are just a few of the slogans we are all familiar with that have, nevertheless, got lost in translation.

Finger Lickin’ Good

This phrase can easily get most of us hankering for a KFC, but it’s unlikely to have the same effect in China, where it was translated to: “Eat your fingers off.”

Got Milk?

It’s the slogan that made kids and adults alike treat themselves to more glasses of the white stuff. Although perhaps not in Mexico, where the term was wrongly translated to: “Are you lactating?”

Turn it Loose

Who could resist a chilled bottle of Coors when they hear this phrase? Perhaps the people of Spain, who got the mistranslation: “Suffer from diarrhoea.”

With mistakes like that, you’ll never underestimate the value of a good translation again.

Image credits: USDAgov, lightmatter, gademocrats & Marufish