Well it’s that time of year when the 2012 reviews and roundups proliferate, so I thought I’d do a quick one on the language and translation errors that made the headlines in 2012.


Westfield Arabic banners
Credit BBC News July 2012

I posted at the time about some of the mistakes that made the headlines leading up to the Olympics, such as the illegible welcome signs in Arabic, which had been printed backwards (left to right, as with Western script, rather than right to left) and also had the characters spaced apart. This came shortly after the South Korean flag was displayed prior to the North Korea vs. Colombia women’s football match, causing a less than slight diplomatic incident.

It turns out I completely missed the garbled comments Mitt Romney made prior to the Olympics, largely triggered by the G4S fiasco. Most of the focus was on his criticisms of London, but some journalists did highlight his comment that he’d “spent a great day in the backside of Downing Street”. A great reminder that although we might seem to speak the same language, sometimes there’s a gulf as wide as the Atlantic between American and British English.


Signage always seems to be a problem when it comes to producing translations… the latest this year in a long history of Welsh bilingual signage mistakes directed drivers to “follow the entertainment”, due to the translation of the wrong sort of ‘diversion’.

Penn an Wlas

Meanwhile, closer to home, Land’s End came under intense criticism for removing the Cornish “Penn an Wlas” from the entrance to the site. The timing could not have been worse, as it came just before the start of the Olympic Torch Relay, although the site vociferously denied it was anything to do with that.

Social Media

Poor François Hollande had barely rearranged the presidential office before he was being lambasted on Twitter for a silly mistake. In a letter attached to a congratulatory tweet sent to Barack Obama on winning a second term in office, the Twittersphere quickly noticed that in an attempt at the personal touch, Hollande had signed off the letter “Friendly, François Hollande”. Such a simple mistake, and I’m sure if he’d signed off with the French sympathique or amicalement the sentiment would still have been picked up in Washington.

Another French figure; Laurent Joffrin, the editor-in-chief of Nouvel Observateur, was also caught up in a Twitter firestorm when he sent a follower this rather indignant reply:

Laurent Joffrin tweet

It actually happened in 2011 but it made our headlines in 2012 in a BBC article about the rise of ‘tu’ amongst French Tweeps, and it’s fitting because I think 2012 has been the pivotal year for how we use social media.

Last Laugh

Finally, it almost beggared belief that the official paper of the Chinese Communist Party would so utterly fail to suspect a hint of irony when they picked up satirical publication The Onion’s piece naming North Korean leader Kim Jong Un ‘sexiest man alive’. But, it seems that they read it as gospel and as a result suffered being the butt of a global joke when they reproduced almost the entire article.

There’s probably many more that I’ve missed – feel free to add them in the comments!

2012 Review: Language Gaffes
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