Mistranslations That Have Changed the World

13/02/2013 | Hayley

Mistranslations are not just embarrassing – it’s the type of mistake that has the power to change world history, as a new book reveals.

Found in Translation: How Language Shapes Our Lives and Transforms the World by Nataly Kelly and Jost Zetzsche details the power translations have to shape people’s lives through the books they read, films they watch and even the religions they follow. Translators help to influence people’s opinions, educate them, and even save lives.

This book is less about translation and more a celebration of it, as the authors point out the skill can be encountered in all walks of life. Unfortunately, translations are not always accurate – but a mistranslation wields just as much power as a correct interpretation.

Mental Floss recently highlighted some of the mistranslations featured in the book that have influenced our lives.

Politics

President Jimmy Carter’s visit to Poland in 1977 was a landmark in US and Soviet relations, but the State Department’s decision to hire an interpreter who was not a native Polish speaker could have seen the visit end in disaster. The interpreter repeated Carter’s address to the Polish audience in a way that suggested the president had fled the US permanently, and that he desired the Polish people in a carnal way.

Nikita Khrushchev also caused a stir thanks to a mistranslation. When the Cold War was at its peak, it was reported in the US that he had said: “We will bury you.” This was quite a threat to make at the height of the conflict and prompted fears a nuclear attack was imminent. However, it was a mistranslation from the Russian leader, and Khrushchev had actually claimed the Soviet Union would outlast the US, without making any direct threat.

Business

Numerous businesses have had to spend vast sums of money to rectify the damage caused by poor translation. One of the examples to feature in the book is HSBC paying $10 million (£6.43 million) to rebrand in 2009 after its slogan “Assume Nothing” was incorrectly translated as “Do Nothing” in some countries. Not the kind of message a business wants to send its customers.

However, there was a happier outcome for a chocolate company expanding in Japan in the 1950s that started to promote the idea of giving chocolates to your loved one on Valentine’s Day. A mistranslation meant the campaign suggested the western custom was for women to give men the sweet treats, when it is in fact usually the other way round. However, the women of Japan embraced the suggestion and the practice has been a tradition ever since.

Religion

Religious texts are often the subject of translation errors because they are so old and usually written in languages and dialects that have fallen out of use. As a result, there is some debate over the original meaning of these books.

There was a period of art history where Moses was repeatedly depicted returning from Mount Sinai with horns growing out of his head. This was the result of St Jerome, who was among the first to translate the Bible into Latin from the original Hebrew, mistaking the Hebrew word ‘karan’ for ‘keren’. While ‘karan’ means radiance, ‘keren’ means horned. Interestingly, St Jerome is the patron saint of translation.

Away from Found in Translation, there is another important part of the Bible that some now believe might actually be a mistranslation. It’s a contentious area, but in the United States Conference of Catholic BishopsRevised Edition of New American Bible, the baby Jesus is revealed to have been born to a “young woman” rather than a “virgin”.

The bishops claim the Hebrew word ‘almah’ used in the original Hebrew was more likely to mean ‘young woman’ than ‘virgin’.

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