BOOK REVIEW: ‘The Little Book of Big Mistakes’: Misconceptions, ‘Near Truths’ Are More Common Than We Think

  • Reviewed by David M. Kinchen
BOOK REVIEW: 'The Little Book of  Big Mistakes': Misconceptions, 'Near Truths'  Are More Common Than We Think

“Reports that say that something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns—the ones we don’t know we don’t know. And if one looks throughout the history of our country and other free countries, it is the latter category that tend to be the difficult ones. And so people who have the omniscience that they can say with high certainty that something has not happened or is not being tried have capabilities that are [beyond mine].” — What former Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld really said



I’m quoting Rumsfeld — who was the youngest Defense Secretary when he served under President Gerald Ford and the oldest when he served under President George W. Bush — at length because, as Philip Yaffe points out in his eBook “The Little Book of Big Mistakes” (available as a Kindle ebook on Amazon Digital Services, 99 pages print length, $3.99, 164 kb) “We all live with misconceptions about the world. This is normal. No one can be an expert in everything, so we simplify our knowledge into easy-to-remember snippets that are often very close to the truth, but never quite there.”


When Rumsfeld’s insights were first aired, many commentators — mostly on the left side of the political spectrum — made fun of the Princeton graduate (class of 1954). Only when the full quotation is printed do we realize that the Evanston, IL native, born in 1932 — a U.S. Navy pilot and four-term congressman — was on to something.


I’ve reviewed a number of books by Yaffe, an American who has lived and worked in Brussels, Belgium for many years. He’s an expert at explication, making difficult subjects easier to understand, and this book is no exception. Plus, it’s fun to read, no small feat, as any writer can tell you.


Most of the time our misconceptions — that Columbus tried to prove the world was round (he knew that, he was just trying to find a shorter way to the Indies) or that Vikings wore horned helmets in battle (no, the horned headgear was used in religious ceremonies; the horns would catch on weapons in battle) — do little harm. Other times our misconceptions are quite significant and can do a lot of harm, Yaffe writes.


Yaffe says his book reviews “numerous ideas and ‘facts’ that are not quite what they seem. It is up to each individual to decide whether or not they do harm, or are just amusing. However, I think we can all agree that it is better to be right about things than wrong about them.
Yaffe’s book examines eight categories of mistakes. They are:

1. Famous Misquotations
2. Mistakes in Translation
3. Science Mistakes
a. The soul of science
b. What we used to believe — and why
4. Misinterpreting Science
5. Strange Laws
6. It’s a Strange, Strange World
7. False Friends
a. American vs. British English
b. English vs. French
c. English vs. Spanish
8. Test Your Intuition


Among the “fun” parts of “The Little Book of Big Mistakes” are quizzes allowing you to guess at the mistakes before they are finally revealed. Trivia fans will love this book!


Below is an excerpt from the book, reprinting actual unintentionally humorous general mistranslations:


Hotels, restaurants, airlines and others who cater to a wide public offer some excellent examples.


In an Acapulco hotel: The manager has personally passed all the water served here.


In an Athens hotel: Visitors are expected to complain at the office between the hours of 9 and 11 a.m. daily.


In a Bruges (Belgium) hotel: Bathroom light operates with motion sensor. Turns off approx. 15 minutes after last registered motion.


In a Bucharest hotel: The elevator is being fixed for the next day. During that time we regret that you will be unbearable.


In a Japanese hotel: You are invited to take advantage of the chambermaid.


In a Zurich hotel: Because of the impropriety of entertaining guests of the opposite sex in the bedroom, it is suggested that the lobby be used for this purpose


In a Paris hotel: Please leave your values at the front desk.


Of course hotels are not the only place you can find humorous mistranslations. In fact, anywhere anyone posts signs is fertile ground.


On the menu of a Swiss restaurant: Our wines leave you nothing to hope for.


Outside a Hong Kong tailor shop: Ladies may have a fit upstairs.


In a Bangkok dry cleaner’s: Drop your trousers here for best results.


Outside a Paris dress shop: Dresses for street walking.


In a Rome laundry: Ladies, leave your clothes here and spend the afternoon having a good time.


In a Copenhagen airline ticket office: We take your bags and send them in all directions.


In a Czech tourist agency: Take one of our horse-driven city tours –- we guarantee no miscarriages.


In a Bangkok temple: It is forbidden to enter a woman, even a foreigner, if dressed as a man.


In a Norwegian cocktail lounge: Ladies are requested not to have children in the bar.


In a Budapest zoo: Please do not feed the animals. If you have any suitable food, give it to the guard on duty.


In a doctor’s office in Rome: Specialist in women and other diseases.


Detour sign in Kyushi, Japan: Stop. Drive Sideways.


In the lavatory in Spain: Please put used toilet paper into the basket.



Mistranslations can be costly, Yaffe points out, saying that International companies need to be especially careful about translations. Mistranslations can cost a lot of embarrassment as well as a lot of money.


Yaffe: “I live in Brussels, Belgium. A few years ago I needed a Yale combination padlock. I went to a branch of the leading do-It-yourself chain in the country. There were many other brands of padlocks on the shelves, but not Yale. I was surprised. I ask the section manager why.


“’Oh, we discontinued them because they didn’t work.’ Now I was really surprised.


“I specifically need a Yale padlock. Do you know where I could find one?” I asked. ‘Wait a moment,’ he said. ‘We may still have one or two in the stockroom.’ He checked and handed one to me. “May I try it?” I asked. “Certainly.” The instructions in English for using the combination were perfectly correct, but the instructions in Dutch and French [the two languages of Belgium] were not. The lock wouldn’t open.


“In short, Yale (generally considered to be the ‘gold standard’ for combination padlocks) had lost a major portion of the Belgian market due to a translation error!


Here are a few more examples of humorous –- and sometimes damaging –- mistranslations that can affect a product:


> When translated into Chinese, the Kentucky Fried Chicken slogan “finger-lickin’ good” came out as “eat your fingers off.”


> Chicken magnate Frank Perdue took pride in the slogan, “It takes a tough man to make a tender chicken.” However when it was translated into Spanish, it came out, “It takes a hard man to get a chicken aroused.”


> In Italy, a campaign for Schweppes Tonic Water translated the name into Schweppes Toilet Water.


> The slogan for Salem cigarettes, “Salem –- Feeling Free,” was translated into Japanese as “When smoking Salem, you feel so refreshed that your mind seems to be free and empty.”


> A T-shirt maker in Miami, Florida, printed shirts for the Spanish market which promoted the Pope’s visit. Instead of the desired “I saw the Pope,” in Spanish the shirts proclaimed “I saw the Potato.”


> When the Parker Company marketed a ball-point pen in Mexico, its ads were supposed to say “It won’t leak in your pocket and embarrass you.” Instead, the ads said “It won’t leak in your pocket and make you pregnant.”


> In Taiwan, the translation of the Pepsi slogan “Come alive with the Pepsi Generation” came out “Pepsi will bring your ancestors back from the dead”.


> Scandinavian vacuum manufacturer Electrolux was embarrassed to find lackluster sales when they told potential customers in the U.S. that “Nothing sucks like an Electrolux.”


> The name Coca-Cola in China was more or less phonetically translated into Ke-kou-ke-la. After printing thousands of advertising posters, company executives were dismayed to discover that it meant “Bite the wax tadpole” or “Female horse stuffed with wax,” depending on the dialect. They then went back to the drawing board and came up with Ko-kou-ko-le, which loosely translated means “happiness in the mouth.”


> Bacardi once created a fruity drink with the name Pavian to suggest French chic. Unfortunately, in German Pavian means baboon.


> The Coors beer slogan “Turn it loose” was translated into Spanish as “Suffer from diarrhea.”


> The “Jolly Green Giant” is the mascot of Green Giant canned foods. When translated into Arabic, it came out as “Intimidating Green Ogre.”


“The solution to these funny –- and sometimes very costly –- translation problems?” Yaffe says. “There are two: 1. No matter how simple the translation might seem, always have it checked by a native speaker, and 2. If you are giving instructions in another language, have a native speaker actually try to follow the instructions to see if they really work.”


So, if you’re an international business person — or aspire to be one — “The Little Book of Big Mistakes” could save you from costly mistakes.



About the Author


Philip A. Yaffe was born in Boston in 1942 and grew up in Los Angeles. In 1965 he graduated in mathematics from UCLA (University of California, Los Angeles), where he was also editor-in-chief of theDaily Bruin, the daily student newspaper.

He has more than 40 years of experience in journalism and marketing communication. At various points in his career, he has been a teacher of journalism, a reporter/feature writer with The Wall Street Journal, an account executive with a major international press relations agency, European marketing communication director with two major international companies, and a founding partner of a marketing communication agency in near Brussels, Belgium, where he has lived since 1974. He is author of six self-help books available in digital format. In addition to Actual English and Gentle French (for my review of both books,

Among Yaffe’s other books are:

● The Gettysburg Approach to Writing & Speaking like a Professional

● The Gettysburg Collection, A comprehensive companion to The Gettysburg Approach to Writing & Speaking like a Professional



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