Recently we got a desperate call from one of our law firm clients. The attorney was requesting a Spanish-English interpreter immediately, because the client had brought her teenage niece as an interpreter to a bankruptcy deposition. Another attorney client told me of a case he was handling where the Chinese witness had brought his mother to interpret in court. On both occasions the proceedings had to be stopped, delayed or rescheduled, costing time and money.

This sort of thing happens too often. There’s a belief out there that if you can speak a second language, you’re qualified to interpret or translate. But just like owning a tennis racket doesn’t qualify you for Wimbledon, being bilingual does not qualify anybody as a professional translator or interpreter. And the negative repercussions of doing it badly (or making do without it) go from the hilarious to the tragic.

When I speak in front of groups, I often use funny examples of mistranslated text. There are dozens of them and the culprits tend to be global multimillion-dollar companies, exhibiting their lack of regard (or perhaps lack of understanding) for the importance of communicating appropriately in a foreign language. One of my talks is entitled “Never Fly Naked and Other Useful Language Tips for Doing Business Globally,” and the title refers to the tag line “Fly In Leather” used by a long-defunct airline, which came out in Latin American Spanish as “Fly Naked.” This and the other examples I use always get a laugh. The irony: for want of spending a relatively small amount of money, these companies made language mistakes that cost them millions and damaged their brands.

But beyond corporate embarrassment, loss of employment (pity those poor senior executives that approved the campaigns!), and the waste of advertising dollars, there is a much darker and more serious side to mistranslation.

For example, there is the wrongful conviction in 1995 of Angel Gonzalez, who was sentenced to a 40-year prison term for sexual assault but was released after serving 20 years, exonerated by DNA evidence. The victim had identified him as her attacker on the evening in question in the dark, from 50 feet away. Gonzalez’s statement to the police had been mistranslated as a confession.

There’s also the case of Maria Guevara, a non-English-speaking woman who finally became pregnant after years of trying. After a conversation with an English-speaking doctor (without an interpreter), Maria was prescribed what she thought was medication for prenatal care. What she was really prescribed was a drug to induce abortion.

Then there is the heartbreaking case of Willie Ramirez, an 18-year-old baseball player from South Florida. On a night in 1980, Ramirez was taken to the hospital unconscious. There was no medical interpreter available, and family members who were not English-proficient believed Willie was “intoxicado,” meaning that he might be suffering from food poisoning. The word “intoxicado” does not mean “intoxicated” in English—which means to be drunk or high on drugs. As a result, he was treated
incorrectly and the brain hemorrhage he was suffering from was not detected until two days later, and by then it was too late. Ramirez left the hospital as a quadriplegic, and the ensuing medical malpractice lawsuit resulted in a $71 million settlement. The cost of a freelance medical interpreter, or even a in- house one, is a microscopic drop in the budget by comparison.

The above is an extreme example of what can go wrong, but mistranslation in professional, medical and legal settings happens every day. Several of my attorney clients have told me that they’ve stopped proceedings to complain that something was not interpreted correctly, even by people who interpret for a living. This brings up another important point: just because you’re qualified to translate or interpret in a certain area does not mean you can do so in another. A medical interpreter will not be the best choice for your deposition, and your legal interpreter will not be the best choice to interpret in a hospital emergency room.

When it comes to translation and interpreting, it really is imperative to hire professionals.

Carmen Hiers is founder and managing partner of TransForma Translation Services. Get a free quote on your project today at or call 305-722-3827.