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Translation mistakes that made history

Published on 18/04/2022

In a world dominated by globalisation and more interconnected than ever, translation mistakes continue to occur in very sensitive situations and environments. For example, around 2013, the Spanish press reported that a European Commission spokesman had described Minister Wert's statements as “rubbish”. Although Dennis Abbot, the education spokesman, had used the word “rubbish”, it was not meant literally. Actually, “rubbish” can have a less offensive meaning like “nonsense” and this interpretation must be drawn from analysing the context.

Although this example caused a lot of media controversy, it remained an anecdote. But what would have happened if the same mistake had occurred in a critical moment, for example, in a war context? Potential risks and consequences of poor translations Here are some serious translation mistakes throughout history.

1. More than a millennium of mistakes

A translation error altered Christian iconography for more than a millennium. Unbelievable but true! During the late Gothic and Renaissance periods, artists depicted Moses with two horns on his head due to a mistranslation made by Saint Jerome, who was in fact a translation icon. The Latin transcription from the ancient Greek and Hebrew (from the Vulgate texts) became the official guideline for the Catholic Church from 382 until 1979. The misleading expression was “keren or” which really may be alluded to Moses’ “shining face”.

2. Khrushchev's threat at the peak of the Cold War

Around 1956, at the peak of the Cold War, Nikita Khrushchev hold a speech at the Polish embassy in Moscow. Throughout the meeting, which was attended by a large number of Western ambassadors, the communist leader said: “Whether you like it or not, history is on our side. We will bury you!”. His words instantly generated great unease, but could they have any positive reference? Well, actually, yes, although, obviously at the height of an arms race, the Western press soon became alert and perceived a latent threat in its words. However, the Soviets soon decided to clarify the misunderstanding. In fact, Khrushchev had alluded to a quote from the 'Communist Manifesto' in which Marx states that the bourgeois class is capable of generating its own gravediggers. Although the interpretation is, a priori, rather problematic, in reality the words were chosen with a purely ideological intention and not in a defiant manner. The most appropriate translation would be something like “Whether you like it or not, history is on our side. We will live long enough to see how they bury us”.

3. Jimmy Carter's erotic speech

In 1977, President of the United States, Jimmy Carter went to Poland. The country was still under the sway of communism and Carter's aim was to project an approachable discourse to generate sympathy among its citizens. Nevertheless, the State Department hired an interpreter with Russian roots and his skills were rather limited. Although he knew Polish, he had never translated Polish at a professional event. The result was da desaster. Carter began his speech by saying “I left the United States this very morning” and the interpreter translated it as “I have left the United States forever”. However, throughout the speech the situation became ridiculous when the president said “I am happy be in Poland” and the translator added a rather sexual meaning by turning it into “I am happy to see the Poles’ private parts”. Faced with this unpleasant (and weird) incident, the delegation decided to immediately replace the interpreter with another oral translator. Unfortunately, the result was not particularly better because this second translator was fluent in Polish but not in English and was unable to keep up with Carter's pace.

4. Mars and intelligent life

When Giovanni Schiaparelli made the first descriptions of the surface of Mars around 1877, caused widespread hysteria. The director of the Brera observatory provided quite precise information specifying the presence of seas and continents, but also canals. The controversy became apparent when 31 years later, Percival Lowell, an American-born astronomer, decided to analyse Schiaparelli's work. His conclusion was quite alarming: The artificial canals described had been built by intelligent beings to bring water to the desert planet. His statements caused quite a stir, but everyone calmed down when a translation error was detected. Giovanni Schiaparelli had used the Italian word ‘canali’ to refer to gorges or canyons, i.e. canal-shaped structures that are integrated into the relief and with totally natural origin.

5. A word that exploded the atomic bomb

The Allied powers in World War II issued the Potsdam Declaration on 26 July 1945. They explained the terms of the surrender of the Japanese empire in a rather threatening tone. If they do not surrender, the empire would face “imminent and total destruction”. Unfortunately, when Kantaro Suzuki, the Japanese Prime Minister, called in a press conference, he used ambiguous terms that led to a misinterpretation by the Allies. The word ‘mokusatsu’ can be interpreted in two ways, either as “we will think about it” (the message the Minister wanted to convey), but also as something rather more negative, which could be translated as “we despise it”. Their statements were translated incorrectly and the result came only ten days later when we discovered what they meant by “imminent and total destruction”.

6. A 71 million dollar mistake

When Willie Ramirez was brought to a Florida clinic in 1978, his family tried to explain what happened to him. However, they didn’t speak English. When trying to explain that Willie had suffered from food poisoning, the hospital staff (who, in theory, were bilingual) translated the Spanish word intoxicado as “intoxicated”. In English, this term refers having lost some control of behaviour under the influence of alcohol or drugs. The situation became really dramatic because the patient had suffered a cerebral haemorrhage despite his relatives' belief that his problems were limited to a gastrointestinal infection. The doctors, for their part, assumed that his condition was due to an overdose and applied a treatment that, far from helping the patient, had serious consequences. This negligence, caused by a translation error, was subject to a hefty compensation to the family of $71 million. In addition, Willie became a quadriplegic.

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Virginia Pacheco's picture
Virginia Pacheco

Blog writer and Community Manager interested in multiculturality and linguistic diversity. From her native Venuzuela, she has travelled and lived for many years in France, Germany, Cameroon and Spain, passing on her passion for writing and her intercultural experiences.

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