The Most Famous Translation Errors in History

The Most Famous Translation Errors in History

Written by Malena Garcia Vildoza

There are more than 7 billion people and approximately 7,000 languages in the world. As you can imagine, not every human being can understand all these languages, so misunderstandings should not come as a surprise. However, it is one thing to make a minor mistake while shopping at a store in a different country because the label has not been translated, but another to make a translation error so serious that it could change the course of history. From a mistranslation that almost instigated politicians to start a world war to a mistake that implied that Mars was filled with aliens, here are some of the most famous translation errors in history.

Mars and its Apparent Intelligent Life 

There is a translation error so significant that the community of American Astronomers believed for a couple of years that there was intelligent life on Mars. This is because of the way the Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli described the surface of Mars in 1877. He thought that he could see ancient “seas” and “continents” on the planet, and also lines that he referred to as “canali,” a term which was translated into “canals” in English.

Due to his use of words and this mistranslation, US astronomers concluded that the “canals” were built by intelligent aliens to carry water from the polar ice caps to the desert regions of this planet.

However, Schiaparelli never thought that these lines on Mars were artificial constructions. Actually, the Italian word “canali” refers to completely natural structures, such as canyons. This misunderstanding was resolved years later, although today it serves as a good laugh.

The Mistake that Almost Caused World War III 

Another error worth mentioning is the one that almost caused the start of the Third World War. In 1956, there was a mistake in the English translation of Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev’s speech. The communist leader issued a statement that was translated by his interpreter as “Like it or not, history is on our side. We will burry you!” This sounded as a direct threat at the United States.

However, Khrushchev was only quoting Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto and meant that the working class would outlive its creators. As unfriendly as this statement was, it was not meant to be a war threat directed at this nation. Soviet correspondents were quick to explain that the true meaning was actually related to an ideological issue and, fortunately, that clarification reached North America faster than the threat itself, so the problem did not escalate.


These few instances alone showcase the power of translation. A translation error can convey a completely opposite meaning than the one intended, which could have catastrophic and unexpected consequences. Linguistic and conceptual accuracy is so important that, when looking to translate content, hiring experts is always the best idea.

Our translators here at Argentum Translations are certified professionals with degrees and extensive experience trained to deliver high-quality, complete, and accurate translation services. We are aware of the critical need for precision and accuracy when translating important messages and legal documents for your company so that you do not have to deal with disastrous consequences similar to these. If you hire our reliable professional translation services, we will make sure your business avoids mistranslations and that your reputation remains intact!

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