For something that we all spend so much effort on getting right, language is at its best when it goes hilariously wrong. A lot of the most famous language fails are permanently seared into our collective memory, and we still remember a lot of cringey marketing mistranslations. That’s to say nothing of the more everyday ways Google Translate, Alexa and our tattoo choices betray us.
What about when celebrities mess up? As it turns out, being a famous artist doesn’t make you impervious to poorly translated foreign language tattoos — even if, presumably, you could afford to hire your own personal translator. Even when you’re an elected official who probably does work with an interpreter when engaging in international affairs, you are still not fully protected from making a global laughing stock of yourself.
So here are a few famous celebrity language fails to entertain you, and also make you feel better about making silly mistakes on your way to conversational fluency.
Famous Celebrity Language Fails
Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee’s “Despacito” was a chart topper for some time, but that doesn’t mean everyone in the English-speaking world faithfully knew all the words — not even the ones featured in one of the remixes. Justin Bieber was famously called out for forgetting the words to “Despacito” during a performance in New York City in May 2017. You can actually hear him singing “blah blah blah” — as well as “I don’t know the words so I say ‘Dorito’” and “I ate a burrito, I just want a burrito.”
Ich Bin Ein Berliner
This next one actually isn’t a language fail, but it was characterized as one so emphatically in the public imagination, perhaps it deserves to live on this list in a roundabout way. During President John Fitzgerald Kennedy’s iconic speech at the Berlin Wall, he declared himself a Berliner with the line, “Ich bin ein Berliner.” Somehow, years after the fact, it became common knowledge that he had actually called himself a pastry, because Berliner was also a word for “jelly doughnut.” However, that word was not common in Berlin itself, so the people hearing his speech understood what he was trying to say.
Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg was dubbed El Bloombito — with an honorary parody Twitter account to match — after his 2011 press conference preparing the city for Hurricane Irene, in which he offered some very stilted counsel in what can only be described as Spanish-esque, or crude Spanglish.
The Hilarian Accent
Not too very long ago, at a time when many people were still stuck inside, the internet became obsessed with trying to figure out whether Hilaria Baldwin was faking her Spanish accent. There was even a compelling dossier of evidence: video proof of her accent slipping into regular American; her old classmates claiming she never had an accent back in the day. However, this is likely more of a hilarious (ha) misunderstanding than a fail, pe se. Baldwin has explained that her accent inconsistencies are a result of being bilingual and having spent her upbringing in the United States and Spain. Code-switching is common among multilingual and multicultural people.
The Lohanian Accent
Okay, but since we’re on the topic of weird accents, let’s talk about Lindsay Lohan’s. This one legitimately raises some eyebrows because we’re all pretty sure she didn’t speak like that before. But in 2016, she suddenly adopted a strange new accent that she explained was a travel souvenir from spending so much time in places like Dubai and Greece.
At one point, she told The Daily Mail that “it’s a mixture of most of the languages I can understand or am trying to learn. I’ve been learning different languages since I was a child. I’m fluent in English and French, can understand Russian and am learning Turkish, Italian, and Arabic.”
One psychological theory posits that she might be taking a natural impulse toward mimicry — or making yourself sound more like the person you’re talking to — and creating a full-fledged affectation out of it. Either way, it’s fun to listen to.
Barbecue Grill Finger
Most celebrity language fails become immortalized in history books or on the internet. In Ariana Grande’s case, hers was immortalized on her body (and also on the internet). The singer attempted to get “7 Rings” — the name of one of her singles — tattooed in Japanese on her palm. Unfortunately, her tattoo said shichirin (七輪) instead, which means “barbecue grill.” She did make a heroic attempt to fix it by adding an additional kanji, but all that accomplished was making her tattoo read “barbecue grill finger.”
Jimmy Carter’s Polish Blunder
Another infamous moment in translation history involved U.S. President Jimmy Carter’s 1977 speech in Poland. Carter attempted to express his wish to learn about Poland’s “desires for the future,” but his interpreter mistranslated this into a statement that very much sounded like Carter was interested in getting to know the Poles carnally. But his troubles didn’t end there. Instead of saying he was happy to be in Poland, Carter said he was “happy to grasp at Poland’s private parts.”