Translation services, technology and improved cultural understanding has helped us all to understand each other a little better, but this has not always been the case.
Here are some of the most notable mistranslations from history – some of which have led to dire consequences. These are a great reminder of the fact that language and interpretation of language is nuanced and demands a highly skilled translator to ensure the intended meaning is coming across.
1. Are they asking or demanding?
Way back in 1830 when Washington was in talks with Paris, a secretary was used to translate a message sent over to the White House from French officials. Now, the word for ‘ask’ in French is ‘demander’, and a simple question was put to the Americans as ‘The French government demands….’
Of course, that was enough to halt the negotiations for a while and no doubt led to some very awkward back -tracking and explaining by the French…and by the secretary in charge of (mis)translation!
2. Did a mistranslation lead to the first Atomic bomb being dropped?
Well, not entirely. However, when the US issued the Potsdam Declaration on 27 June 1945 to Japan, demanding they surrender, Prime Minister Suzuki simply replied with the Japanese term ‘mokusatsu’, which is a difficult term to translate directly into English, but translates literally as ‘to kill with silence’.
The Americans read it as a statement full of contempt and they later decided to bomb the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki to devastating effect.
3. Jimmy Carter (unintentionally) goes down a storm in Poland
During a 1977 visit to Poland, US President Jimmy Carter was hoping to convey his sincere thanks to the people of Poland and talk about how much he enjoyed visiting the country. However, the interpreter he used for the trip wasn’t fit for purpose it seems.
He made several major mistakes while translating the president’s public speeches during the trip, including implying that Carter desired the country of Poland sexually and that he has left the US that morning and was never going to return. I think it’s fair to say the Whitehouse probably increased its budget for interpreters following that disastrous trip, which led to Jimmy Carter becoming a laughing stock throughout Poland.
4. Little green men?
Although many of the most famous historic mistranslations have come from the political and diplomatic world, literature and science have also spawned a few crackers. One that spans both these areas is astronomer Giovanni Virginio Schiaparelli’s 1877 mapping of Mars.
He used the Italian word ‘canali’ to describe the channels he identified on the surface of the planet. This was then mistranslated as ‘canals’ when written in English, hence launching the theory that there had been intelligence lifeforms on the little red planet that had built canals to transport water around.
This theory grew and grew, of course, and many believe it was this simple mistranslation that spawned an entire science fiction genre, originating in the War of the Worlds back in 1897.
So – what does all of this teach us? Beware the mistranslation.
Getting it wrong can lead to anything from a delay in negotiations to a nuclear attack!
Contact the team at Bubbles today to steer clear of any historic mistranslations in your business activity overseas.