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The Second Annual Jelly Donut Awards

By Dan at Accredited Language
Posted on Thursday, December 23, 2010
Category: Interpreting, Localization, Translation



berliner

Image by Rainer Zenz

Welcome to the second annual installment of the Jelly Donut Awards, where we recap the top 5 translation, interpreting and localization mistakes of the year! From the red carpet to the prison yard, this year’s “winners” overwhelmingly represent the translation end of the spectrum, which means it was either a bad year for translation, or a great one for interpreting and localization!

As you may remember from last year’s announcement, the Jelly Donut Awards are named in honor of one of the most enduring stories of international mistranslation. Though it has since been established that John F. Kennedy’s claim of “Ich bin ein Berliner” — “I am a jelly donut,” as the story goes — isn’t actually incorrect, the anecdote is too widespread (and too charming!) to ignore.

Sometimes what we mean to say isn’t the same as what we do say. Most of these little mistakes are just that: harmless slips of the tongue that don’t affect much of anything. But then there are the Jelly Donuts, which are highly publicized, financially damaging or just plain dangerous — and sometimes all three!

5) Rihanna’s Rhododendron Rebellion

When you’re getting ink permanently displayed on your skin, one would think you’d be extra careful to make sure everything was just right before the tattoo gets applied. But then, I’ve been wrong before.

Pop star Rihanna decided to forgo due diligence earlier this year and got a tattoo on her neck that reads “rebelle fleur” — literally, “rebel flower” in French. Sort of. The problem is that French, like many other Romance languages, is usually written with the noun preceding any adjectives that modify it. So while “rebelle fleur” may technically get her meaning across, it isn’t proper French — she really should have gone with “fleur rebelle.”

What a rebel.

4) German Tram Firm Gets Derailed

A German transportation firm contracted to build a tram in Edinburgh, Scotland, had to hit the emergency brakes after a mistranslation resulted in a defamation lawsuit. In discussing the financial status of the project, one of the project heads declared the firm, TIE, to be delinquent.

When the story was translated into German, however, “delinquent” was translated as “Verbrecher,” which can mean “criminal.” Outraged at the accusation, TIE filed a lawsuit, and business relations ground to a halt. The argument probably could have been avoided entirely by more diligent proofreading, but that train has already left the station.

3) This One Goes to 11

In New York City, medicine labels are required to be translated if the patient speaks one of the city’s seven most-spoken languages. In many cases this service was being performed by automated translation programs, and unfortunately, the software wasn’t equal to the task.

Some of the instructions were simply bizarre (“Apply to affected area twice to the indicated day like”), but others were actively dangerous. One patient was mistakenly instructed to take his medicine eleven times a day, but the actual recommended dosage was once a day. As any first-year Spanish student knows, “once” is Spanish for “eleven,” but the translation program didn’t catch the distinction.

Cases like this highlight the need for accurate, professional translation, especially when one’s health is at stake. If nothing else, the labels should have been edited and proofed by professionals before being issued to patients — if they had, the errors likely would have been detected much sooner.

2) Snow White and … You Probably Don’t Want to Know

In a classic example of “Know your source before you publish a translation,” a Chinese publisher released what it thought was a children’s book: the timeless story of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

That would be fine, except they couldn’t find a copy of the story in the original German, so they substituted a Japanese version instead. Still sounds fine, right? As it turns out, the Japanese version they procured wasn’t a traditional fairy tale — it was an erotic adaptation of the story.

The publisher found this out only after it hit shelves, and several parents complained that the adult content of the story was wholly inappropriate for the children it was being marketed to. In response, the publisher issued a recall and an apology.

1) Translation Doesn’t Work Out for Russian Prisoners

As if a prison sentence wasn’t bad enough, Russian-speaking inmates at Lincoln Prison in England were given some seriously scary information upon arrival. A handbook distributed to new inmates detailed the layout of the prison, but in the Russian translation, the exercise yard was mislabeled — it read “Execution Yard.”

The error was pointed out as part of a review of the facility, and new handbooks were printed with the correct information. The prison was chastised, however, and with good reason — for several prisoners, that translation mistake was a matter of life and death!

That’s it for this year’s winners! Each of them could have avoided making the list by taking advantage of skilled, professional translators, and in a few cases, they’ve done just that — though it was after the damage was done. We’ll be handing out another round of Jelly Donuts next year, so if you see a mistake you’d like to nominate for the 2011 edition, please leave a comment!



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