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Botched Translation Leads to Tragedy

A good translation or translator really does matter. Professional translator Nataly Kelly tells the following story about what journalists have called the "$70 million word."

In 1980, 18-year-old Willie Ramirez was admitted to a Florida hospital in a comatose state. His friends and family tried to describe his condition to the paramedics and doctors who treated him, but Willie's family only spoke Spanish. They told the hospital staff that Willie was intoxicado. The word is what translators call a "false friend"—it doesn't mean what you'd assume it means. In Spanish, intoxicado refers to a state of poisoning, usually from ingesting something toxic to the system. Ramirez's family was trying to say that Willie was suffering from food poisoning—literally, "he is poisoned."

But when the doctors grabbed a hospital staff person to translate for the Ramirez family, the staff worker said that Willie was "intoxicated." The doctors treated him as if we were suffering from an intentional drug overdose. Willie was misdiagnosed and, because of the wrong course of treatment, became a quadriplegic. The hospital finally settled in court with the Ramirez family for $71 million.

Possible Preaching Angles: (1) Communication—This story shows the power of words and why our words matter—careless words can lead to misunderstanding and painful consequences; (2) Bible Study; Doctrine—Careful study of biblical words and doctrinal concepts can make the difference between spiritual life and death; (3) Evangelism—People need accurate "translators" so they can understand the message of the gospel.

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