The Second Annual Jelly Donut Awards Recap the Top 5 Translation Errors of 2010

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Accredited Language Services announces the winners of the second annual Jelly Donut Awards recognizing the top translation, interpreting and localization errors of the year. See the winners for 2010.

A Berliner Donut

The following five translation errors proved to be publicly embarrassing, financially damaging or just plain dangerous — and sometimes all three!

Translation has gotten plenty of media attention in 2010, but sometimes for the wrong reasons.

That’s why Accredited Language Services, a US-based translation company, has created the Jelly Donut Awards, which recap the top 5 real translation, interpreting and localization errors of the year.

As was explained in 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.

From the red carpet to the prison yard, this year's Jelly Donut Award "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!

The following five translation errors proved to be publicly embarrassing, financially damaging or just plain dangerous — and sometimes all three! Don’t make these same mistakes: always get professional, accurate translations the first time around!

#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.

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 they 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 only found this out 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!

All five of these “winners” could have avoided making the Jelly Donut 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. Stay tuned for the winners of next year's awards – but avoid being one of them.

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Dan Dalton
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