Three harrowing examples of translation gone wrong.
Great Translation helps keep people happy, healthy and safe. Value that like that old Mastercard commercial is priceless. Bad translation, on the other hand, causes headache after headache. Money-saving shortcuts result in additional expense and can even be dangerous. (Happens every day with Google Translate for sure.) But what if your stakeholders’ lives depended on that translation?
We’ve been highlighting recent bad translation from around the world in our ongoing blog series. However, today I’d like to share some terrifying examples from a few years ago demonstrating how bad translation kills.
Drug Diagnosis Hurt Man Who Didn’t Take Drugs
One of the most well-known cases is that of Willie Ramirez, who was left quadriplegic after a misdiagnosis robbed him of timely treatment in 1980.
One night in South Florida an ambulance brought 18-year-old Ramirez to the hospital in a comatose state. Based on an initial physical exam, the ER doctor thought that a drug overdose was possible. He then conversed with the man’s Cuban family, which quickly turned into a series of miscommunications. From them he understood that Ramirez had intentionally taken drugs (not true) after a fight with his girlfriend (true), and not the thread they had wanted to convey, which was that they thought Ramirez had become sick after eating a Wendy’s hamburger. Ramirez lay in the ICU for two days before the hospital doctors finally recognized his brain damage, sent him to another hospital that had a CT scanner and diagnosed him correctly. But by that time, it was too late. He became a quadriplegic. And in the end, Ramirez was awarded a $71 million lawsuit settlement.
This Translation Process Was Not Correctly Cemented into Place
In a case in Germany, the quality control process grossly failed patients. There a package label for a prosthesis used in knee replacement surgeries was mistranslated. “Non-modular cemented” was rendered as “without cement.” The error was eventually caught, but not before 47 people in 2006 and 2007 had received incorrectly implanted knee prostheses, which had endangered their health.
Homosexuality Does Not Require Treatment
In 2009 a Norwegian student in Copenhagen, Denmark was injured when he was hit over the head with a beer glass during a bar fight. At the hospital the student tried to communicate to staff that he was a hemophiliac (hemofil), meaning that he had a condition where his blood was unable to clot normally. (Hemophiliacs often bleed severely from minor injuries.) However, there was a Norwegian to Danish communication problem. The staff believed that the student had said he was a homosexual (homofil) and so they sent him home without any special treatment. Less than a day later the student was found dead in his home from a brain hemorrhage.
Quality Translation Saves Lives, Saves Money and Saves Headaches Down the Line
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