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Every Word Counts: 4 Translation Errors that Cost Millions

April 18, 2017

frusteratedInaccurate translations can be very costly. In the best-case scenario, a translation error is caught and only requires correction. In the worst-case scenario, errors can expose you to financial liability, disputes or even lawsuits.

Getting translations performed by the cheapest vendor is a common rookie mistake. Errors produced by low-cost translation services can prove far more expensive in the long run. The four examples below demonstrate the potentially high-priced consequences of imprecise or unreliable translations.

 

1.  Malpractice settlement awarded to quadriplegic (Price tag: $71 million)

Eighteen-year-old Willie Ramirez became a quadriplegic due to a hospital misdiagnosis. The settlement resulted from the mistranslation of a single word.

Ramirez was brought to the hospital in a comatose state by his family. The Spanish-speaking family explained they believed he was experiencing a reaction to food poisoning, using the word ‘intoxicado’ to explain that he was poisoned. In Spanish, the word refers to anything ingested that makes a person sick. The interpreter, however, translated the word as intoxicated. Doctors treated him for a drug overdose, overlooking the real problem – bleeding in the brain that continued for days, resulting in his complete paralysis.

 

2.  Sharp backtracks on faulty translation (Price Tag: Stock fell by 10%)

Announcing net losses usually hurts your stock price, but when Sharp, the Japanese electronics giant, warned in a statement about its own negative cash flow, a translation into English sounded the alarms much louder than the company intended.

While the original Japanese statement asserted confidence in the company’s future despite the losses, the English version of the statement declared that the company’s brain trust held “material doubt” about its future as a going concern. The corrected statement, issued a few days later, made it clear that the company had “no uncertainties” about its ability to continue. Unfortunately, the damage was already done. Sharp’s stock fell by 10% before rebounding a few days later.

 

3.  Spanish packaging error results in costly food recall (Price Tag: approx. $10 million)

Mead Johnson was forced to recall 4.6 million cans of baby formula in 2001 because Spanish language instructions on the side of the packages were wrong. The incorrect mixture of powder and water was dangerous and could lead to seizures, an irregular heartbeat and even death in infants. The product had to be recalled immediately.

The recall was enacted quickly enough to prevent liability, but the scale of the preventative action came at the cost of a significant recall – setting Mead Johnson back, at a minimum, $10 million in direct costs (including retrieval, storage and destruction of the recalled product) plus the unquantifiable costs of a damaged reputation and lost future sales.

 

4.  Imprecise translation leads to huge award (Price tag: $1.76 billion)

A tribunal hearing the case of Occidental Petroleum Corporation vs Ecuador ruled against Ecuador, awarding the petroleum company nearly $2 billion. The Ecuadorian representative claimed the huge award would have been significantly lower had the tribunal had access to better translations of Ecuadorian Supreme Court judgments and documents.

Initially, Occidental had reached an agreement with Ecuador to explore regions near the Amazon for oil. The tribunal’s judgment determined that Occidental breached its agreement with Ecuador by not soliciting approval from the participants of their farmout agreement. But terminating the initial agreement was deemed to be disproportional, resulting in an enormous award to Occidental.

In a dissenting opinion, Ecuadorian representative Professor Brigitte Stern blamed poor translation for the unparalleled monetary sum. “Had the translations…been correct and the original Spanish texts been really taken into account, the conclusions arrived at by the majority would have been impossible to sustain,” she wrote (paragraph 78).

 

Spend at the beginning, not the end

Each of the abovementioned, high-priced consequences could have been avoided had the initial translations been obtained and prepared properly. Ultimately, the price of failing to produce quality translations is significantly steeper than performing the translations appropriately at the outset.

The best way to prevent costly translation errors is to have your documents translated by a professional, vetted translator or LSP (language service provider). This ensures that documents are prepared accurately and will be able to withstand thorough review. Remember, while high-quality translation services may be more expensive, they are still far less expensive than translation errors that can literally cost you millions.