One of the most egregious examples could be English as She is Spoke, an 1800s book by a Portuguese man, who only spoke Portuguese, writing an English phrasebook with the help of a Portuguese-French phrasebook and a French-English dictionary. Hilarity Ensues.
For a while, there were several Russian 'translations' of Harry Potter floating around, all fairly terrible, featuring straight translations of figures of speech that have Russian equivalents. It got to the point where, back in 2004, a newspaper held the "Worst Harry Potter translation" contest. Since then, better translations have been made available (though the old sucky ones are still out there)
Even the official Spanish translations published by Salamandra suffer from glaring errors, including the use of the false friend "embarazada" (PREGNANT) as a translation for "embarrassed".
And lets not forget that many Spanish-speaker readers of the series were told that Neville had a turtle. That's right, a turtle that liked to jump from its owner's hand. It was fixed in latter releases fortunately.
One of the official latin american spanish translations makes several translation mistakes, one of the worst being at the end of the book, when Dumbledore compliments Neville about how you need more courage to fight against your friends, it's translated as to say "you need more courage to SUPPORT your friends", which is pretty much the opposite.
The Russian translation of the second book received a prize for the worst translation. It was noticably better than the first. One of the best known mistakes (not exclusive to HP) is translating "ebony" as "ebonite". And a certain non official translation of Book 6 translated the words about a "breathless girl", not as a "zapykhavshayasia" - that is, out of breath, but as "bezdykhannaya". Dead, that is.
The German translation has a couple of mistakes as well. For example, in the fourth book, "eel farm" was translated as "Eulenfarm" (owl farm).
The Portuguese translation of Philosopher's Stone translated "London Underground" as in a literal underground, a pitfall warned about in grade school. They did it AGAIN in Chamber Of Secrets when Harry tells Mr Weasley about "taking the underground" to which he replies "Really? Were there "escapators?", the latter word being translated as "fugitives" which makes the entire conversation take on a weird new meaning.
They also had the somewhat understandable error of not realizing that "witch" and "wizard" are gender specific (though exceptions exist in other works). That coupled with the vague descriptions of certain characters caused certain characters to spontaneously change genders between books)
While the official Hungarian translations are generally of an extremely high quality, there was a somewhat big mistake in the first prints of Order of the Phoenix. In the scene when Harry's group was cleaning up the saloon of the Black mansion, there was this insignificant offhand comment about an unopenable locket. The word "locket" was translated as "padlock". Later prints had it fixed.
In the Danish translation, Voldemort's real name (Tom Marvolo Riddle) is made to be "Romeo G. Detlev Jr." ("G" standing for Gåde, meaning "Riddle"). Since he was named after his father, it was stated that his father (Tom Riddle Sr.) was also called Romeo. While many fans certainly didn't like that an Evil Overlord was called "Romeo" (as the name gave much different associations to them), they had to cut the translator some slack since the translation initially didn't create any PlotHoles, and it does take some creativity and thinking to translate the "I am Voldemort" anagram. But then, as the sixth book with Voldemort's past rolled around, it became a plot point that there are more than one person called Tom as when Dumbledore told Voldemort about the bartender Tom. So they Retcon Voldemort's father's name to actually be Tom and explains that Merope simply used to call him her "Romeo". A nickname that sort of works, considering her love for him. You would almost think that the translator managed to solve this translation problem gracefully. But in the fourth book, when Voldemort shows his father's gravestone, it spells "Romeo Gåde". It's quite doubtful that the stonecutter would spell an unknown nickname from an Abhorrent Admirer instead of the man's real name in the gravestone... So the hate of the translation "Romeo" began again.
In the Swedish translation of Philosopher's Stone, the lemon sherbet that Dumbledore offers McGonagall has been replaced with a lemon popsicle. And the text of the Erised-mirror is completely unchanged from the original, so that understanding what it means requires the Swedish readers to read backwards and speak two languages.
One of the Guinness books of World Records translated into Russian had the Goosebumps series called Goose Bumps (i.e. bumps made by geese).
The Norwegian translation of The Saga of Darren Shan is kinda like an adaption rather than a translation, and the translator seem to have relied on TriTrans a little too much. Vampaneze is changed into vampan. Mr. Tall is changed to Herr Høy, using Herr which means Mister instead is okay but Høy can also mean high and hay which neither fit him, lang which directly means long had fitted him way better. Mr. Desmond Tiny is changed into Matt Order which sounds more like a masochistic judge than a creep, when playing by combining is it M. Order which is used, while morder means murderer does it not fit the last book's title. R.V. claims he's a rightful vampaneze, being it just as much as the other vampaneze. Well in norwegian he calls himself "rettferdig vampan", while rightful can mean "rettferdig" does rettferdig mean mainly fair, as he felt that the world had been unfair to him does it not fit him, the translator should have used rettmessig which actually means only rightful.
Joseph Conrad's writings have occasional odd turns of phrase due to false cognates between French and English, since he learned English partially from a French-English dictionary (like most Slavic aristocrats of the time he was fluent in French).
The original Swedish translation of The Lord of the Rings became infamous in part because the translator, Åke Ohlmarks, apparently had only a tenuous grasp of English idioms and mistook the meaning of various words. In one sentence, "roamed" was translated as "råmade," which despite phonetic similarity actually means "bellowed" or "mooed." The word "stripped," as used by Orcs, was translated as "piskade," meaning "whipped." The idiom "turn over a new leaf, and keep it turned" became "pick a fresh leaf, and hold it in your hand." Tolkien, being a Cunning Linguist, wrote to the publisher and sent a blistering blow-by-blow criticism of Ohlmarks' translation, which can be found in The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien.
The French translation often gives the wrong lines to the wrong characters, repeatedly fails to notice that Isildur and Elendil were different people (possibly on account of Tolkien's comma usage), and, due to a change in phoneticization, ends up with Bilbo having a slightly different name between The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings — despite the fact that the translator was the same in the two cases.
The Finnish translation of Lord of the Rings is considered as one of the best foreign language translations, but it also contains one grave error. Poet Panu Pekkanen, who translated all the poems (while Kersti Juva translated the prose), translated All that is gold does not glitter as Ei kaikki kiiltävä kultaa lie (literally "all that glitters is not gold", which is a more familiar everyday expression.) Pekkanen later noted his error and changed it into Ei kaikki kultainen kiiltävää lie, carrying the original implication.
The German translator of Mr Terry Pratchett's Discworld books. For example, the "bloody stupid robe", worn by the big bad in Guards! Guards! becomes "blutroter Seidenumhang" (blood red silk robe). Every character talks exactly the same way, with the exception of the trolls, who talk in infinitives. ("I be big troll. I be scary")
They also made a literal translation of a wordplay in Soul Music. In English, "club" can mean both an establishment and a weapon, so confusing the both is possible. In German though, there are two different words and confusing them makes no sense whatsoever.
There's many, many mistranslated puns... Pratchett loves puns, his translator apparently does not. Also, translated names, usually horrible.
On a note here: The former German translator, Andreas Brandhorst, once said it is often impossible to translate some of the puns. He, however tried to make up for the missing ones where it was possible. The new translators however...
There are several different translations of Discworld into Russian. The good one translates Granny Weatherwax as Vetrovosk (Windwax, which sounds better in Russian then the straight Pogodovosk). The bad one translated her as a Groms-Hmurry - Thunders-Gloomy. Which in no way corresponds to her actual name.
Sometimes done deliberately in-text, with Dwarfish and Trollish lines accompanied by footnotes that almost translate them to well-known phrases. (e.g. Ruby's version of "Falling in Love Again" in Moving Pictures, which apparently contains the line "Vy iss it I am a blue colour?")
Danish SF lore tells of some horribly bad translations of science fiction done in the 1950s. In one case, a story dropped several rungs on the Mohs Scale of Science Fiction Hardness when a hydraulic power plant that supplied energy to a human settlement became a "hydraulisk kraftplante" (hydroactive force-weed, more or less).
The Hebrew translator of Dragons of Summer Flame translated "draconian" (a lizard-like humanoid) to "dracon" - which is the Hebrew word for "dragon". Apparently Caramon Majare was so strong he killed two DRAGONS by bashing their heads together. This translator also called Tasselhoff Burrfoot "Barefoot Tasselhoff", and traslated the word "Elf" everywhere it appeared to "Shed" - meaning "Demon". Tanis Half-Demon, how cool is that?
Another translator got it right through the magic of inversion, translating "dragon" as "dracon" and "draconian" as "dragon". Both translators ignored the fact that there was already a loanword for "draconian", "draconi". So "dracon" is Hebrew for "dragon", "dragon" is now Hebrew for "draconian" (noun), and "draconi" is Hebrew for "draconian" (adj). Simple, really.
An error in the Traditional Chinese translation of Warrior Cats has caused Blackstar to have black claws instead of black paws. Apparantly, they've also referred to Hawkfrost as Brambleclaw's older brother (he's really his younger half-brother), among other minor errors.
The infamous "Magenta Dune" is a "translation" of the first Dune book to Russian, done so ludicrously bad—no page contained less than 3 errors and 8 typos—and having so little in common with any sane use of either language that it kept its "fame" from 1990 to this day. The problem: later lazy translators created several mutated clones trying to polish it instead of working from scratch. Let's just say "the pile of rocks that were" note in plural, so not even pile, but rocks themselves were, obviously home of Atreides family and there was 19 g. And so on. Amen.
Ironically, Pavel Vyaznikov, the author of a much better translation, now considered almost canonical, who also wrote a scathing review on "Purple Dune", has unknowingly embarrassed himself there. He didn't recognize the Serbian "Ima trava okolo i korenje okolo"note "Here is the grass and here are the roots". in the novel as such, and accused Herbert himself (not the anonymous translator) of As Long as It Sounds Foreign. In his defense it must be said that the phrase in question does sound as a very broken Russian to people who don't know Serbian.
Happened a lot with the Hebrew translations of the early Discworld novels. In one book, the librarian is described in English as "the sad orangutan". It was translated to "the sad orange jam". Israeli Discworld fans still wonder what the hell the translator was smoking.
Even worse was the whole witches vs. wizards deal. There are two possible words for magic-user in Hebrew: mechashef and kosem. The translations of The Colour of Magic and The Light Fantastic chose to use mechashef. Unfortunately, there's only one word for "witch": machshefa (kosemet would only mean "female magic-user"). So when Equal Rites comes along and they make a big deal over the fact that Esk is the first female magic-user as opposed to witch, it would have made sense to put a translator's note at the beginning saying "up until now we used mechashef, but in this book a wizard is a kosem" - and made Esk the first kosemet and Granny Weatherwax a machshefa. But if they'd done that, I wouldn't be entering it in this page, right? They made Esk the first kosemet and Granny Weatherwax a machshefa - but they left wizard as mechashef! So they made a big deal over the first kosemet appearing, and accidentally implied that there was no such thing as a male kosem!
Renne Nikupaavola is an infamous translator who has butchered numerous fantasy novels into something resembling Finnish and consistently translates the English "uncle" into the Finnish word for "maternal uncle" (eno), even when someone who had been paying the slightest attention would have been aware that the word was being used to refer to someone's father's brother (setä).
Walt Disney's Uncle Scrooge has been translated as setä (paternal uncle) in Finnish, while in reality he is Donald's maternal uncle, eno. Likewise, the nephews Huey, Dewey and Louie originally were veljenpojat (fraternal nephews) while they are siskonpojat (sororial nephews). Today they are translated as ankanpojat ("ducklings").
Not surprising, since English doesn't have separate words for paternal and maternal uncles, and the canonic relationships were established long after Disney Comics were published in the Nordic countries. It was a 50/50 guess, and someone made the wrong one.
Lord Foul's Bane by Stephen Donaldson was subjected to an epically horrible Finnish translation full of bizarre neologisms and general badness. The most memorable and horrifying detail was the mangling of the name of the Dark Lord (Lord Foul) into something that sounds like a humorous, family-friendly Harmless Villain (Vallasherra Falski) when he is actually anything but. The cherry on top is that the name means "False" while the character has never once lied during the entire series. This trainwreck of a translation killed all further translations of Donaldson into Finnish which is more than even Renne Nikupaavola can claim.
Finnish translation of 1984 by George Orwell contains some hilarious mistrantlations such as alikonekivääri (under/lesser machine gun) for submachine gun (instead of correct konepistooli). [At least it wasn't translated sukellusvenekonekivääri (sub[marine] machine gun)...]
The original translation also muddled up the iconic "freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four" line into "freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make two". The translator must've cherished the right to practice bad arithmetic.
The infamous Polish translations by Jerzy Łoziński, of which that of Lord of the Rings is the best known (he also did Dune). Where do we start?
Calling dwarves "krzatowie". That can be most closely translated as "ixies" - "pixies" (skrzaty) without the first letter. It probably isn't that bad in itself, the "default" translation of "dwarf" being kind of a neologism as well (an augmentative of the Polish name for garden gnome-style dwarf, mirroring Prof. Tolkien's shift from soft to hard plural form) — but let's proceed down the rabbit hole...
Translating "Strider" as "Łazik". Instead of the proud Strider, we get something like "Rover" as in "lunar rover" or "Land Rover", or worse even, "Stroller" or "Rambler". It sounds just as childish.
Trying to localize all the personal and place names. Frodo Baggins of Bag End becomes Frodo Bagosz of Bagoszno. Rivendell became "Tajar", which is supposedly a portmanteau of "Utajony" (hidden, secret) and "Jar" (ravine).
And inevitably, he twisted the original names: to fit his translation of "Brandywine", the river Baranduine turned to Goranduine, twisting the name's meaning from "Brown River" to "River of Dread". Yeah...
The first Polish translation of Roger Zelazny'sLord of Light has a well deserved bad reputation among fandom. The translator apparently didn’t notice the difference between the word "soup" and the phrase "to soup up" – and as a result Yama was eating ("tucking away") generators. The line "Because I want you to" became "Because I desire you". One of the funniest quotes from original book, where Olvegg admits that he’s a Christian, but only occasionally, when he runs out of Hindi swear words, in translation was drastically butchered and turned into some gibberish about breaking the word given to Hinduism. Add omnipresent typos and many factual errors (like, for example, Krishna playing kobza instead of flute) and you’ll get one of masterpieces of literature transformed into Translation Train Wreck. Thankfully, there is a new translation.
The Message, an English translation/paraphrase of the Bible by Eugene Peterson. "Sex, sex, and more sex"!
The overall technique of The Message is to take the original Biblical phrases, which have since become cliches in English — and replace them with other English cliches that were never in the Bible to begin with.
In Stephen King's short story In the Deathroom, a character is described as such: "He looked like a movie Mexican. You expected him to say, "Batches? Batches? We don’t need no steenkin batches" - a reference to the famous line from the movie The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. In the Hungarian translation (in Hungary, the line is not well-known) "batch" was traslated into "halom", meaning "pile".
In King's The Waste Lands, riddles play an important role. One of them is "When is a door not a door? When it's ajar" (a jar). This was translated literally to Hungarian, resulting in something like "When a door is not a door? When it's half open."
Rob Grant's Incompetence has the main character attempt to fix his boiler using an instruction manual that was "translated from Japanese to English by a Kalahari bushman whose closest encounter with either language had been a chance encounter with a German explorer trying to acertain the going rate for a second hand camel in terms of petroleum and shiny beads."
The "translation" of The Bible directed by King James the First of England occasionally mixes up Jesus (the son of God) and Joshua (Leader of the Israelites in Exodus, Numbers and Joshua) because their names are the same in Greek and similar in Hebrew. What isn't as understandable is that the two appear literally almost half a book apart.
About a century earlier, Myles Coverdale's translation of The Bible was hampered by the fact that the translator couldn't read Latin, Greek or Hebrew, and was working from a Lutheran translation in German, which he wasn't fluent in either. Strangely, this resulted in the English idiom: "The iron entered his soul"- the expression should have been "His neck was put in iron". Generally, the text is more beautiful than it is accurate or sane.
The English translation of Stieg Larsson's Men Who Hate Women (aka The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) has one while giving the backstory to why Mikael Blomkvist is nicknamed Kalle Blomkvist. In his youth he helped stop a gang of robbers known as Björnligan, which is the Swedish name for The Beagle Boys. In the English translation they're called The Bear Gang, which is a literal translation of "Björnligan". Translating the gang's name directly rather than correctly replacing the Swedish name for the Beagle Boys with the English one, thus ruining the Disney references concerning the gang, makes no sense.
The French translation is infamously bad. So bad it caused an uproar on the Internet and led the (whiny) translators to issue an open letter to explain themselves.
Another problem with the translation is that Björn doesn't necessarily reference bears - it might very well, indeed given Swedish criminal gang naming traditions is fairly likely to, reference the Swedish name Björn.
The first Croatian translation of The Da Vinci Code is a notorious example. The translator apparently knew nothing about religion, which is kind of ironic for a country where about 90% of the population declare themselves Catholic. The term immaculate conception is the best known mistranslation in the book: translated back to English, it would be something on the line of “exceedingly honorable concept”.
A translation of Pratchett’s Sourcery into Croatian is terrible from the very start: the title was translated as “Sour Spellcasting”, probably because the blind idiot translator considered it a pun on “sour cherry” instead of “source of magic”, as it is explained in the book itself.
Dave Barry parodied this in the two funniest things ever written. One is an instruction manual "translated from the Japanese," including instructions like "Never to hold these buttons two times!" "This is a very maintenance action," and "However." The other was inverted, in a section of a book on travel, which includes some phrases like "Je donne a madame chat plus que ca a manger," translated as "I give my damn cat more than that to eat."
"the dark brethren of the elves" was translated to "de onda alfernas bröder" (brothers of the evil elves) in the official Swedish translation of a fantasy book. note Note that in addition to the three obvious mistakes, there is a fourth mistake that is lost in the return translation to English, namely the use of alf, rather than alv, for elf. Alf is an archaic spelling for alv (officially abandoned in the linguistic reform of 1906, almost a century earlier), when refering to the creature from Norse mythology, never when refering to the fantasy staple.
Tolkien's works in Hungarian generally fared very well, and the translations are regarded as utter masterpieces, save for a single instance: in this version of the Lord of the Rings, it was Merry (called Trufa in the translation) who landed the finishing blow to the Witch-King, not Éowyn.
This same error happened in Åke Ohlmarks Swedish translation - according to him, it was Merry, not Éowyn, who killed the Witch-King.
The Hebrew translation of The Silmarillion barely averted this trope. The Elves were originally intended to be called b'nei Lilith (children of Lilith) - Lilith is the evil she-demon of the Semitic lore. Fortunately the translator was informed that Tolkien's intention was to pose Elves as what human beings would have been without The Fall, and b'nei Lilith could have not been further from this intention. The name used is alph, plural alphim, a neologism from English word "elf".
Observe what the Hungarian version of Luring a Lady translated the following lines as:
"Man, get a load of those buns.note As in, a woman's butt. They are class A" Sydney swallowed. She supposed they were. "You man, fetch me a load of those beaver-boards! They are class A" Sydney swallowed. She hoped they were.
Used in-universe in The Flying Sorcerers. The human explorer introduces himself by his English name, which his computer translates into the native tongue "as a color, shade of purple-grey". He spends much of the book being called "Purple" because of this, but he eventually sets them straight: His name was Asimov.
In the German translation of Dracula. In the pivotal scene where Mina is visited by the Count at night, she tells the reader that she "couldn't resist him." In the original she says that she "didn't want to resist him" (she thinks that's part of his terrible power) - a small, but important difference.
The first printing of Michael Chrichton's Jurassic Park in Hungarian had some instances where the names of various characters got inexplicably mixed up. Gennaro becomes Hammond for a line (right when he's talking about Hammond), and Muldoon gets to be Malcolm briefly. The translator also had trouble keeping the word "hypsilophodont" consistent — sometimes, it's left as that, but it also appears as "hypsilophodontida" and "hypsilophodonta". Then, of course, the dinosaur Maiasaura is always written as "Maiasaurus", which wouldn't work, as the name means "good mother lizard", and "-saurus" is usually seen as a masculine suffix.
In-Universe example in Human Error, a short story by John Jackson Miller (Can be found in the Armored anthology, edited by John Joseph Adams). When humans first discovered intelligent alien life linguists were a bit overzealous in wanting to be helpful with space travel, so they sent "knowboxes" containing every single word to ever exist in the English language, regardless of current usage. When aliens begin to create computer interfaces for humans, the results are anachronistic and silly.
A standard error message is "What deviltry be this?" and an inquiry is "Prithee, dude, what is up?"
The Danish translation of Robert Harris' WWII novel Enigma translated the text of a classic propaganda poster warning people to beware of enemy spies ("Keep mum, she's not so dumb") as "Keep Mother, she is not so stupid".
This one's not evident unless you are versed on European fauna, but the Spanish version of the Earth's Children second book translated chamois (Spanish gamuza) as fallow deer (Spanish gamo). This way, the text ended with constant mentions of people going into the mountains of Ice Age Europe to hunt fallow deer, an animal that does not live in mountains and that is only recorded in Europe during warm periods to boot.
The 1998 thriller Op-Center: Balance of Power is an already bizarredepictionof Spain without taking into account the Gratuitous Spanish that litters the text from time to time. Some of this seems to have come out of an early online translator (fusilar is used as a translation for "gunman", when it actually is "executing by firing squad") while others are plain made up ("chop shop" is translated as cortacarro, "car-cutter", and that's without taking into account that cars aren't called carrosin Spain, they are coches; the correct word for such a place would be desguace).
In the Spanish translation of Perdido Street Station, "caterpillar" is translated as ciempiés ("centipede"). So you have centipedes that turn into chrysalides and then emerge as moths. Somehow none of this tipped the translators that they were off the mark.
In James Clavell's Shogun, the shipwrecked English sailor Blackthorne makes a blunder in Japanese. He assumes "onna" is the Japanese name of the woman who has forcibly bathed him and got his personal hygiene up to acceptable local levels. He asks for her to deal with some trivial matter or other. But actually onna is a generic word for "woman"; so, instead, his hosts assume he wants a woman for the, er, obvious. Hilarity ensues when three women come to him, he points at the one he knows and says "Onna!", and she shrugs and begins undressing.
One translation of Foundation to Russian has translated the words "Logarithmic slide rule" as "Pravilo logariphmicheskogo skol'zheniya". Literally "The law of logarithmic sliding".
The German edition of one of Margery Allingham's (of Albert Campion fame) novels tranlates the title as Schwarze Pflaumen (black plums) rather than Black Plumes. This is especially silly since the text leaves no doubt as to which it should be.
In Tales from Jabba's Palace Jabba believes that the chef Porcellus has been using a "fierfek" on his food. It is commonly accepted among non-Hutts that this is Huttese for "poison" and Porcellus proves that it was actually his assistant poisoning the food, only to be sentenced to death anyway. As C-3PO explains Huttese doesn't have a word for poison since a substance that can poison Hutts is so rare. Jabba suspected Porcellus had a placed a "fierfek" or "hex" on the food due to the bad luck of those who ate it.