Olympic failures and the importance of symbols
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Olympic failures and the importance of symbols

Olympic failures and the importance of symbols
"London 2012 Olympics - Road Signs" via FlickrThe Olympic games bring a profusion of symbols including the Olympic flame, medals, the iconic interconnecting rings. Then, there are the flags from every participating country, and, of course, the most complex symbol-system of all: language.

With athletes from more than 200 nations competing in London right now, Great Britain has the opportunity to welcome people with an array of languages and ceremonies. Or not.

According to Middle East Online, the Westfield shopping center, the official shopping center for the 2012 Olympics—yes, there is even an official mall—put up “Welcome to London” signs in Arabic. It was a nice gesture with two tiny problems: the words were backwards and there were extra spaces between the letters, making the signs incomprehensible.

And this wasn’t the first error of its kind. Earlier, security posters printed in multiple languages at London train stations also featured the oddly spaced, backwards Arabic.

It seems a computer program made the mistake, but before you swear off machine translation, note this more serious, human-induced error: As The Guardian reported, the North Korean women’s soccer team was shown briefly on a video with the South Korean flag. The team refused to play until it was fixed and organizers apologized.

Sure, it’s difficult to keep 200+ different flags straight, but really? Considering these two nations have had such long, much-publicized tense relations, it would seem extra important not to make that particular mistake.

You know, kind of like not playing the old apartheid-days national anthem for the visiting South African team. Yes, that happened too at a London Cup field hockey match about a month before the Olympics. Again, human error was to blame.

No matter the cause, these incidents highlight how incredibly important translation and cultural competency are. Especially on an international stage, it might be worth investing the extra time, money, tools, and personnel to make sure language and symbols are used correctly.

Because mistakes, no matter how seemingly small, can mean the difference between welcoming and honoring someone or insulting them deeply.