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Translator Needed! 5 Top Cringe-Worthy English-Spanish Translations

We all know that Google translate is about as inaccurate as automated translation systems come. But the fact is that all automated systems make cringe-worthy errors due to social and cultural context, regional or dialectical differences, glitches, and informal slang. Due to these factors each language suffers in different ways at the hands of inept translators — both automated and human.

The following exemplify several areas where these errors are particularly common, and unfortunate in Spanish-English, English-Spanish translation attempts.

1. Song Lyrics

  • Why It’s Difficult: Poetry uses a plethora of idiomatic expressions, takes great liberty with grammar and sentence structure, and tends to use uncommon or enigmatic vocabulary.
  • Why It’s Important: Well you just never know when you may want to serenade your bilingual lover, and you certainly do not want to botch that opportunity.
  • Example: “Because you’re mine, I walk the line…” Translated literally by Google, “Porque eres mía, camino por la línea,” rhymes nicely and sounds legitimate until you realize that this phrase means absolutely nothing to most Spanish speakers. Here you can find other examples of what machine translations do to song lyrics.

2. Tour Descriptions

  • Why It’s Difficult: Travel agency brochures and websites hold innumerable examples because describing unique places calls for a high level of vocabulary, the level that amateur translators and automated systems do not even realize exists.
  • Why It’s Important: Any time you are trying to rope in tourists and capture their money, it is important not to insult their intelligence by carelessly describing — or not — the experience you are hoping they will buy.
  • Example: The beautifully descriptive Spanish phrase, “El Valle del Elqui es uno de los seis valles transversales de Chile, porque transversal va de Cordillera a Mar. Descubrimos toda la magiaque esconden sus pueblos…” becomes this garbled description: “The Elqui Valley is one of six transverse valleys of Chile, because cross goes from mountains to sea. We discover all the magic that hide their peoples…” I don’t that that’s what they meant to say.

3. Museum Graphics

  • Why It’s Difficult: Museums often find their niche presenting new, unique, or shocking information. If this information was well-known the automated translators would know it, but it is not, and they do not.
  • Why It’s Important: People generally go to museums to learn and experience new things. The experience is greatly impeded when visitors are unable to understand the otherwise shocking, intriguing information.
  • Example: Then there is this thought-provoking bit of history brought to you straight from the Machu Picchu Museum in Cusco: “The permanent exhibition brings together . . . factory Inca. Those materials come together Incas purchased locally. It opens the museum in November 2011, to receive and submit to Machu Picchu public the collection of the University of Yale, whose return to Peru had been negotiating to over several years.” What?

4. Signs 

  • Why It’s Difficult: You would think one would be straightforward, but it is not for one simple reason. In order to attract attention, signs tend to incorporate pithy phrases which in turn often include commands, jargon, and pop culture references. All impossible to translate literally.
  • Why It’s Important: Signs usually direct behavior, and a misdirected behavior generally results in confusion and chaos.
  • Example: Starbucks thinks that “Exit here” translates to “Éxito aquí” (“success here”); apparently “caballeros” (men, gentlemen) actually translates to “knights;” and somehow “Cocktail de Frutos Secos” (Dried fruit cocktail) becomes “Nuts Cocktail.” You see the problems here.

5. Instruction Manuals

  • Why It’s Difficult: Commands again complicate the process, but the reason for the confusion in this case is primarily the vocabulary. Instruction manuals include highly specialized terms in order to ensure proper actions. This vocabulary, often obscure and unfamiliar to even the speakers of the original language, poses insurmountable problems for translators.
  • Why It’s Important: Does this even require an explanation?
  • Example: It is not clear exactly what this product will do to your hair shaft, but it will be controlled and the cutest! “Deeply nourishes the hair shaft to leave the controlled hair. With each use, nourished hair. Softer. Cutest.”


Admittedly, some of these are purely entertaining — and the list of examples is extensive — but they all demonstrate an essential point: the importance of knowledgeable professionals when your company’s reputation and credibility is on the line. Convinced it is time to step up your translation game? Give us a try — we promise to avoid all such cringe-worthy errors!

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