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Interpreting Fails

Funny…or not so funny! Interpreting epic fails that can change the world

Bad Language Interpretation

“Nobody is going to notice my mistake”. This is a frequent thought when we are chatting in a language we are not fluent in. Obviously, this rule doesn’t apply in interpreting jobs. Someone could think “don’t be too rigid! – a small mistake never killed anyone”. Maybe not, but close.

You probably don’t know about that unlucky Spanish boy in Florida and his sudden sickness. Goes straight to the hospital and finds an interpreter in a rush! It`s not absolutely clear where they found the interpreter or what happened. Maybe the interpreter was sleeping  kicked out of bed in the middle of the night. Anyway, the family was sure that the sickness was due to a food poisoning (“intoxicado” in Spanish), so the nearly hired interpreter said “intoxicated” to the doctors. Not a great job, you know. The poor young guy risked his life! Ok, maybe it is true that the guy above is not a great example of good fortune but the error is always there, and it is not just an obsession.

Do you remember those pages of history studied at school concerning the bitterness between Japan and USA? Do you recall the war and the bombs? Could you believe that an interpreter has a part of responsibility? July 1945, the USA was demanding the surrender of Japan in World War 2. The Japanese Prime Minister stated: “No comment. We are still thinking about it”. Unfortunately, something got wrong with the interpreting job. The interpreter’s rendition was “We are ignoring it in contempt”. You know what happened next.


Interpreting is a very difficult profession. Interpreters can never be distracted. In many situations, a very small lack of attention can turn into a diplomatic incident. Clearly, all interpreters have made mistakes during their career, even the most professional. It is very important to be able to recognise a mistake and to have the honesty to admit it and correct it. Honesty must never be taken for granted. If you want to find out more about interpreters’ life, you can also read Interpreters Life – Silent but essential.The management of the mistake is an important aspect of this profession. This shows us that not everybody can do it and that you can`t wing it. Well you could but with some consequences.

Interpreting Scam

It’s a fact that to be good in the scam you must be clever and ingenious. In the matter of interpreting scams, the prize absolutely goes to the mock interpreter at Nelson Mandela’s memorial. It was December 2013 when Nelson Mandela died. The commemorative event was solemn. Many of the most important people in the USA took part in it, for instance Barack Obama. Every single person had the opportunity to follow the commemoration. That’s why it didn’t seem strange, the presence of a sign language interpreter standing on the stage. Later televisions and newspapers came out with the news: nobody hired him and his signs didn’t mean anything, he was just flapping his arms around.

The fake translator defended himself as a professional. Maybe he actually was, since he was able to mock Barack Obama! The Minister of people with disabilities defended the fake translator: he was a real interpreter. However in South Africa, there are so many dialects that it is impossible to have a universal rendition.

Maybe someone was lying, but it’s impossible to know who. Someone assumed that the cause was a broader problem. In South Africa (and in many other parts of the world), whether you know few signs, it is easy to pass yourself off as an interpreter and get some money fast. Especially, if very few people can understand you.

Interpreter Jobs

If you think about it the European Commission uses about 97404 interpreters per year. Can you imagine how many interpreting jobs are done every year in the world? Could the huge number of jobs you have just imagined be done without mistakes? Quite difficult. But when we ask for an interpreter it is often because we don’t know the second language. So how can we be sure that the person we hire doesn’t provoke a global war or jeopardises our life in a hospital? Just avoid the company that provided the language sign interpreter to the Mandela’s memorial and choose a certified company, all the rest is a matter of luck!

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