Historical Mistranslations That Made Us Say 'Oops'

Over 200 Ranker voters have come together to rank this list of Historical Mistranslations That Made Us Say 'Oops'
Voting Rules

Vote up the miscommunications you're glad you didn't make.

If you’ve ever attempted to learn a new language, chances are that you’ve meant to say one thing, have gotten a funny look, and realized you’ve said something completely different. With all of the many different languages, cultures, expressions, and interpretations around the world, it’s no surprise mistranslations have happened constantly throughout history

In the best cases, translating a few words wrong in a different language has been quite funny for those listening in their native language, and in the worst cases, it has led to violence, subjugation, and even deaths. All of these translation errors certainly prove that the pen really is mightier than the sword.

  • When Parker Pens Accidentally Told People Its Ink Was Birth Control
    Photo: Mike Burger / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY 1.0
    213 VOTES

    When Parker Pens Accidentally Told People Its Ink Was Birth Control

    As with any foray into a foreign market, it would seem to be common sense to do a little bit of research into the market's native language before printing massive billboards and marketing slots. Parker Pens, though, seemed to forget this when the company released its new SuperQuink quick-drying ink (Quink being a combination of quick and ink). 

    Parker's slogan in English promised that the SuperQuink ink wouldn't smudge and therefore wouldn't embarrass you with messy handwriting:  “To avoid embarassment, use Parker SuperQuink.” When Parker moved into Mexico for the first time to market the product, it didn’t come off quite as intended. Instead of “vergüenza," which means ”embarrassment," Parker used the word “embarazo,” which means something entirely different. So instead, Spanish readers of the slogan read, “To avoid pregnancy, use Parker SuperQuink,” which must’ve been quite embarrassing for Parker.

    213 votes
  • If you’ve ever seen a renaissance statue of Moses, you’ve probably wondered why he has horns. This strange recurring theme is actually from Michelangelo, who, when first sculpting his statue of Moses for the tomb of Pope Julius II, used a mistranslated version of the Bible. The Vulgate, one of the first Bibles translated into Latin from Hebrew rather than Greek, was what Michelangelo used to source his information about Moses.

    One passage describes Moses’s face as “shining” when coming down from the presence of God after being given the Ten Commandments. But the Hebrew word for “shining” is quite similar to the word for “horned,” and therefore it was misinterpreted by Michelangelo when devising the design of his sculpture. This mistake carried over into other artists’ work, and it caused Moses to be depicted with horns for centuries afterwards.

    212 votes
  • When Napoleon's Brother Louis Accidentally Claimed He Was The 'Rabbit Of Holland'
    Photo: Charles Howard Hodges / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    After two years of Napoleon’s reign as emperor of France in 1806, he appointed his brother Louis Napoleon Bonaparte as the king of Holland. This was a strategic decision made by Napoleon in an attempt to restrict the chance of Holland’s independence, using his brother as a puppet ruler. However, Louis took this role quite seriously, going so far as to adopt the Dutch form of his name, Lodewijk I, and attempting to learn the Dutch language.

    Not quite fully grasping the language, Louis famously misspoke to his subjects. He meant to announce that he was the king of Holland, “Konig van Holland.” Instead, he told them he was the rabbit of Holland, “Konjin van Olland.” Despite the mockery that followed from the Dutch, he was actually well-liked by his subjects for his compassion and sincerity, and he was even ultimately referred to as “Louis the Good.”

    203 votes
  • 4
    196 VOTES

    When A Doctor Misdiagnosed Willie Ramirez By Thinking He Was Drunk And Caused Him To Be Paralyzed

    In 1980, an 18-year-old baseball player named Willie Ramirez was taken to a South Florida hospital after falling into a coma. The cause of the coma was unknown, but it likely came down to something he ingested. When the doctor asked what could’ve been the cause, his family reportedly responded in Spanish, describing Ramirez as “intoxicado,” meaning one has ingested a food or drug that has made the person sick. 

    The doctor, assuming the Spanish word was the equivalent of the English word “intoxicated,” diagnosed Ramirez's condition as a drug overdose. Days later, it was found that Ramirez had actually been suffering from bleeding in the brain. This misunderstanding ultimately caused Ramirez to be paralyzed in his arms and legs. Understandably upset by this misdiagnosis, the Ramirez family went on to sue the hospital, winning the case and receiving a $71 million payout.

    196 votes
  • When Pepsi Accidentally Said It Could Resurrect The Dead
    Photo: Pepsi-Cola Co. / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain
    156 VOTES

    When Pepsi Accidentally Said It Could Resurrect The Dead

    Most companies that play around in the marketing world have had their fair share of blunders and mishaps, especially when introducing products and slogans around the world, and Pepsi is no exception. In the first half of the 20th century, Pepsi was competing with the household name of Coca-Cola, and it felt the pressure to constantly reinvent itself in a manner that appealed to its competitor's market base. 

    Known as the “kitchen drink,” where Coca-Cola was the “living room drink,” Pepsi suffered from having the reputation of a second-class soft drink in the US. It wasn’t rare for consumers to take advantage of Pepsi’s cheaper price and purchase the soda, only to place it in Coca-Cola decanters or bottles to impress their guests. In the 1950s, during the rock 'n' roll revolution, Pepsi started a new ad campaign in an attempt to capitalize on that younger generation. This hip marketing was almost an overnight success in the US, though not so much in foreign markets.

     The trouble came from some specific wording in one of the new slogans: “’Cause Pepsi helps ‘em come alive.” While it worked well in the US, sales plummeted in China in response to this new slogan. It was translated a little too literally, and ended up being interpreted as a drink that would “reanimate their loved ones from the graves" or “bring their ancestors back from heaven.” 

    156 votes
  • When Jimmy Carter Accidentally Told The Polish He Wanted Them Sexually And He Was Never Leaving Poland
    Photo: Bill Fitz-Patrick / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    During a visit to Poland in 1977, in the midst of the Cold War, US President Jimmy Carter intended on delivering a relatively routine sort of speech given to the people of the Soviet Union. These speeches were carefully crafted in a way to sway public consciousness away from the Soviet mentality, though they were usually dismissed by the listeners.

     Things didn’t go as planned on this trip, though, leaving Carter the punchline to many a joke for the Poles. In an attempt to say how he wanted to learn more about the Polish people’s “desire for the future,” politically and economically, it was actually translated to say that Carter “desired the Polish sexually.” And that wasn’t all; towards the end of the speech, Carter mentioned he had “left the United States this morning,” which was translated into “I left the United States, never to return.” The Poles were quite confused.  

    These grievous mistranslations were due to Carter’s Polish translator, Steven Seymour, a freelance linguist paid $150 per day by the State Department to translate Carter’s speeches. It was discovered during the trip that despite his strong grasp on the written Polish language, he wasn’t all too adept at the spoken side of things. You would think a role like this should have required a little bit more of a background check!

    232 votes