If translation is an art, it is the art of choice. A choice between the different meanings or structures, between favoring content and preserving form, between faithfulness to the source and adaptation to the new cultural context, between conveying and dismissing semantic ambiguities, and so on. When bad choices are made, the importance of translators’ and interpreters’ work truly comes to the forefront. Otherwise, they are almost unnoticeable, as their intervention should not alter the intended message, style or tone. Translation errors thus lend a new meaning to the famous “traduttore, traditore”, highlighting how much translators are expected to offer besides enabling communication: accuracy, creative thinking, clarity, linguistic intuition, multidisciplinary knowledge, skilful adaptation, and more.


There are various types of mistranslations – some are amusing, others have negative consequences, for either individuals or entire communities. Some are as counterfeit as they are famous, others lie at the origin of generalized beliefs or popular customs. They can generate and foster conflicts, or determine significant decisions. Misunderstood, ill-chosen, misplaced, added or omitted, a single word can create or destroy, help or deceive, influence lives or events. Discover below some of the most memorable mistranslations in history, and you will see your translator in a whole new light.

The Silent Killer

Sometimes the fate of nations is determined by nuances in the meaning of a word. In July 1945, Japan was the only Axis member to withstand, painfully deferring the end of World War II. On July 26, the Allies issued the Potsdam Declaration, calling for “the unconditional surrender of all Japanese armed forces”. The alternative was “prompt and utter destruction”. In a press conference organized two days later, Japanese Prime Minister Kantar? Suzuki discarded the Potsdam Declaration as a worthless act which would be killed off by silent contempt. Since the Allies’ ultimatum only allowed for one answer, the world’s first atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in a matter of days, killing up to 240,000 people in the first four months.

The course of history could have been utterly different if it hadn’t been for one word, mokusatsu, and its ill-chosen translation. Questioned by Tokyo reporters, the Prime Minister used this verb, composed of two kanji, moku (‘silence’) and satsu (‘killing’), and which means “take no notice of”, “treat with silent contempt”, “ignore by keeping silence”, but also “remain in a wise and masterly inactivity”. It can express disdain, embarrassment, discomfort, or not knowing how to react. As a refusal to follow up on a subject, mokusatsu can be a Japanese “No comment”, which is probably what Suzuki intended to convey, since no formal decision had been taken at the time. Unfortunately, a translator chose to assume the Prime Minister had used the first, more bellicose meaning of the word. Consequently, international media disseminated the news that the Japanese deemed the ultimatum “not worthy of comment”, a defiance which must have angered Western officials and influenced President Truman’s decision to bomb the two cities.

This is how a “disastrous oversight in this most important of all messages” became “The World’s Most Tragic Translation”. It was argued that Suzuki used mokusatsu because it was the perfect loophole: its range of meanings allowed him to hide the Government’s intentions at any point, as one could not be sure what he actually meant, and to appease the military, who wanted to negotiate a more favorable peace. In any case, he had no wish to communicate a refusal to surrender at the time. Had the translator selected the other meaning, or indicated that there were two possible versions of Suzuki’s statement, thus enabling readers to make either their own decision or further inquiries, the catastrophic consequences of the Japanese response may have been avoided. Instead, Truman or Churchill did not learn that an ambiguous word had been used, and decided based on the only translation available.1

Happy Valentine’s Mix-up

Translation inaccuracies have also been beneficial for the Japanese, or at least for the male segment of the population: in Japan, it is women who offer gifts to men on Valentine’s Day. Specifically, chocolate. The custom is so popular that etiquette rules were created: honmei choco, rather expensive and usually home-made, is reserved for that special man in one’s life, whereas cheaper giri choco (obligatory chocolate) is given to male bosses, co-workers and friends; cho-giri choco (ultra-obligatory chocolate) is for men one actually does not want to offer anything to or care about. The number of chocolates he receives can define a man’s status, but it is common for men to mistake one type of chocolate for the other, leading to a very unhappy Valentine’s Day. And because ladies also deserve treats, two other types of chocolate developed: women buy tomo choco for their female friends, and jibun choco for themselves. Men are not off the hook, though: they are expected to offer women white chocolate or other small gifts one month later, on White Day.

It all started in the 1950s, when Japan was craving western ideas and looking for incentives to boost its economy. Taking inspiration from the western Valentine’s Day tradition, Mary Chocolate, a Tokyo-based chocolate manufacturer, declared February 14 the day women confess their love by offering chocolate gifts. It was not an instant success: only three chocolate bars were sold for the first Japanese Valentine’s Day in 1958. However, other manufacturers followed suit, appropriating the holiday as a powerful marketing tool, and after intense advertising campaigns February 14 eventually became fashionable in the 1970s. Presently, it is a “national passion”, generating more than half of the annual sales of chocolate companies. Researchers explain the high popularity that the feast gained by the fact that it fosters individualism and romantic love, desirable in a modernizing society that traditionally valued subordination of the individual for the benefit of the group, and arranged marriages. Essentially, it grants free personal expression to girls and women, historically regarded as dependent entities, empowering them to give up their Japanese reserve and play the leading role in cross-gender relationships.

In one version of the story, the unique way in which the Japanese celebrate Valentine’s Day originates in a mistranslation. The president of Mary Chocolate received a letter from Paris, where a friend was briefly describing Valentine’s Day, mentioning, among other love tokens, chocolate. He took over the idea to increase the sales of his company, but allegedly made a translation error and came to believe that it was only women who offered gifts. This is how the event entered public awareness in Japan – they would not have it any other way.2

God Does Take Sides

Unsurprisingly, the most translated book in the world is not error-free. From the very beginning. According to the Bible as we know it, God made Adam from dust, then caused him to fall asleep and took out one of his ribs, from which a helpmate was created: Eve. But why a rib? The Hebrew word used in Genesis 2 is tsela, which can mean ‘rib’, ‘side’, ‘chamber’ or ‘beam’. Other biblical occurrences of tsela have been translated as “side”, referring, for instance, to the sides of the altar, of a hill or “fear on every side” (Jeremiah 20:10). To the contrary, the only other instance of English rib encountered in the Bible (Daniel 7:5) has a different counterpart in Hebrew. This led researchers to the theory that the use of rib is a mistranslation, and that Eve was created from Adam’s side, which would justify Adam’s description of the woman as “bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh”. Interestingly, the Septuagint, the 3rd century B.C. Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, also contains an ambiguous term, pleurá, which can mean either ‘rib’ or ‘side’.

If the female was formed from part of the original person, then the resulting male and the female are the same being. Mary Phil Korsak’s 1992 English-to-Hebrew translation of the Book of Genesis distinguishes the first human creation from Adam, the male, thus supporting the theory that God created one human being that was later separated into two sides. Korsak uses the generic term “groundling” to designate the first human creation (ha-adam in Hebrew, where ha is a definite article, indicating that adam is not a proper name in this first occurrence), described as “male and female”, waking up as “man” (ish) facing “wo-man” (isha).

Further speculations originating in the ‘side’ theory suggest that God removed half of Adam to bring Eve into being. Two halves of the same whole, mirroring the androgynous myth, man and woman complete each other in marriage, standing side by side in the afterlife. If the woman was created to complement the man, to be his equal in the kingdom of God, beside him and not beneath him, as modern Christian teachings advocate, this theory makes much more sense than creation from a rib. Feminist scholars in particular contend that Eve is also a perfect creation patterned after the image of God, and was not made as a separate, secondary entity.3

A $2 Billion Overstatement

In other equally famous cases, it is not a word, but the tone that the translator imprints to the text which is the source of error. For instance, in 2005, an obscure article of the China News Service, speculating on the impact of a possible appreciation of the Chinese yuan, shook the international foreign exchange market, causing a dramatic plunge of the U.S. dollar, panic and substantial losses for traders worldwide. The financial chaos was generated by an overzealous translator and modern electronic media frenzy, which escalated the story from one news channel to the next.

The author, Guan Xiangdong, who was working for the Hong Kong office of the Service, based her story on pieces of news and analysis in local newspapers. She was looking for “views on how an appreciation of the Chinese currency would play in the city”, which she attributed to “observers”. The online edition of People’s Daily took over her article and published it in what was qualified as “clunky English”. But it was a different story: the translator chose to add meaning to the speculative Chinese text in order to make it more concrete. Consequently, the English version seemed factual and authoritative. Without mentioning sources, it reported that China had decided to revalue the yuan, by 1.26% within a month and 6.03% in 12 months, and would make the announcement after a meeting with U.S. economic officials the following week. This was a major development, as Washington was pressuring Beijing to allow its currency to rise, thus endorsing greater trading flexibility. The Chinese had been maintaining a low value of the yuan to boost their exports, which threatened American manufacturing jobs. An appreciation of the yuan would also trigger revaluation of other Asian currencies, which had been artificially kept cheap to render exports competitive.

The English article was immediately detected by software of the Bloomberg news agency in London. It was big news. Bloomberg staff concluded it was also true, as it had been published by People’s Daily, an organ of the Chinese Communist Party, and because the People’s Bank of China had declined to comment on it. A shocking headline thus reached trading screens around the world. Alarmed, traders immediately discarded dollars and bought any Asian currency they could find. About $2 billion were traded within minutes. Experts, however, wondered why the Chinese central bank would announce revaluation, with exact numbers, in advance, so they made some research and eventually found the original Chinese article and its adaptation. The People’s Daily removed the article, apologetically announcing it was an inaccurate translation. Nevertheless, they blamed Ms. Guan as well: “She put too many vague sentences in the story, which eventually caused our mistranslation.” Once it became clear that the information was not valid, traders bought back their dollars, but many suffered losses in the process. The commotion has not been forgotten.4

The Grammar of War

Other translation errors are subject to fierce debate, and may even be used as weapons. One such case focuses on Resolution 242, adopted by the United Nations Security Council in 1967, after the Six-Day War between Israel and its Arab neighbors Egypt, Jordan and Syria. As a result of the war, Israel had taken over the Sinai Peninsula, the Gaza Strip, the Golan Heights and the West Bank. Intended as a basis for negotiations, the Resolution called for “a just and lasting peace in the Middle East”. Its provisions included “secure and recognized boundaries” for every State in the area and “withdrawal of Israel armed forces from territories occupied in the recent conflict”. According to Israelis, by not asking them to retreat from all or the occupied territories, the U.N. was acknowledging that the so-called Green Line – the borders Israel had before the war, set out in the 1949 Armistice Agreements – was a temporary and faulty solution.

Dissatisfied with this perspective, the Arabs resorted to the French version of the Resolution, which contains a small difference of paramount significance: it rules “retrait des forces armées israéliennes des territoires occupés lors du récent conflit” [emphasis added], where des is a contraction of de (‘of’) and the definite article les. This means that, in compliance with the French Resolution, Israel had to withdraw from the, i.e. all, territories it had captured in 1967, not from some territories as the English text indicated. Arab officials contending that Israelis had to return to the Green Line used the following argument: had the U.N. wanted retreat from some of the territories, the French wording would have been “de territoires”. It was also argued that, under the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties, it is the French version which contains the correct interpretation, as it eliminates the ambiguity in its English counterpart and the des reading is more consistent with the other provisions of the Resolution, including “inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war”.

Israeli supporters counter-attacked, claiming that English is binding for interpretation purposes, since it was the language of negotiations and of the text voted on and adopted by the Security Council. Moreover, Resolution 242 was the result of long and intense negotiations, during which every word was carefully chosen. According to negotiators who drafted the Resolution, the and all were intentionally omitted, because they did not want Israel to be confined within its former borders – territorial adjustments had to be made. Previous draft resolutions proposed by various countries, calling for withdrawal from all the occupied territories, had been rejected. The U.N. eventually passed the British draft, which provided a compromise between earlier versions, but did not define the actual extent of withdrawal, leaving it to negotiation among the conflicting parties. Finally, advocates of the Israeli cause rejected all controversy, maintaining that the use of des instead of de in French is simply an inaccurate translation of the English text. On the other hand, several experts have asserted that the translation is accurate, and “possibly the only acceptable rendering into French” of the original English phrasing. Additionally, both English and French are recognized languages of the U.N., which means the two versions of Resolution 242 have equal legal force. The arguments for and against complete withdrawal were many, and for Palestinian supporters the debate is not over. Mistranslation or not, it is still stunning what one small word can do.5

A Poisonous Error

Errors are even more likely in interpreting, and detrimental consequences have been documented. For instance, interpreting inaccuracies can turn into tragic medical errors, especially when, in the absence of professional interpreters, doctors resort to family members or untrained staff, who tend to distort or omit information. Willie Ramirez, who became quadriplegic at the age of 18, learnt this the hard way. On January 22, 1980, he arrived at a South Florida hospital in a comatose state, with no apparent trauma. Based on symptoms (labored breathing, pinpoint pupils), his experience with teenagers and the account of Willie’s relatives, the ER doctor concluded it was a case of “probable intentional drug overdose” and treated him accordingly. The boy was admitted to the ICU, where he had to be restrained because he was pulling out tubes; after nearly two days, the attending physician noticed he was no longer moving his arms. A neurologist was called in, and found “a serious loss of eye function, indicating brain damage”. Willie was then taken to one of the few South Florida hospitals that had a CT scanner, and was diagnosed with left intracerebellar hematoma with brain-stem compression, and an acute subdural hematoma. He underwent surgery, but it was too late to avoid quadriplegia: he had been bleeding for more than two days. Had the hemorrhage been diagnosed earlier, Willie could have walked out of the hospital. Following a lawsuit, he received a malpractice settlement of approximately $71 million.

However, if a professional medical interpreter had been present to facilitate communication between the American doctors and Willie’s family and friends, who were of Cuban descent, disaster could probably have been avoided. It all stemmed from one word: English intoxicated, which always involves drugs or alcohol, unlike its Spanish false friend intoxicado, which designates a series of conditions such as nausea or allergic reactions caused by anything the patient ate or drank. Willie’s mother, Iberia and his girlfriend’s mother, Concha assumed he was intoxicado, i.e. suffering from food poisoning, because he had had lunch at a newly opened fast-food restaurant that day. Since Iberia only spoke Spanish, Concha was the one who told the ER doctor, in her severely broken English, that Willie was intoxicated, although she later claimed she had specified there were no drugs or alcohol involved. It is unclear why she would have made such an assertion, since she didn’t know the meaning of English intoxicated at the time, and, if she did make it, whether the physician understood. In a recent interview, he argued that his conversation with the family only reinforced his original diagnosis. Willie’s sister remembers that, when the doctor told them he believed the boy had taken drugs, Iberia was very upset: Willie was an athlete and strongly opposed drugs, so an overdose seemed impossible. The women told this to each other in Spanish, but didn’t argue against the doctor’s theory. A cultural gap thus added to the miscommunication: the doctor was not aware that Iberia and her daughter regarded him as an authority figure they could not contradict, and tended to believe what he said. Nevertheless, if a professional interpreter had been there to clarify things from the beginning, both the diagnostic and Willie Ramirez’s life could have been completely different.6

The Doughnut President

However fascinating, beware: famous mistranslations are sometimes infamous misconceptions.  One such case is the 1963 “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech, by which U.S. President John F. Kennedy allegedly referred to himself as a doughnut. It was claimed that what Kennedy should have said in order to correctly convey citizenship in German is Ich bin Berliner. Instead, by adding the indefinite article ein according to the English pattern (“I am a Berliner”) the President seems to have identified himself with a non-human entity, a type of jelly-filled doughnut, known as Berliner in the north and west of Germany, and as Pfannkuchen in Berlin.

An early reference to Kennedy’s purported mistake appeared in a 1983 novel, Berlin Game. In its review of the book, The New York Times disregarded the presence of an unreliable narrator and treated the reference as factual, adding that Berliners were amused by JFK’s phrasing. The presidential blooper has since been reiterated in media such as the BBC, The Guardian, CNN or Time magazine, in several books about Germany and in one of Kennedy’s biographies. It took so much momentum that Ted Sorensen, Kennedy’s counsel and speechwriter, stated in a 2009 memoir that he had incorrectly inserted “ein”. However, the German indefinite article does not appear in the final typed version of the speech, the last Sorensen could have tackled.

Kennedy’s address, delivered in West Berlin in front of 450,000 people and aimed at Germans and Soviets alike, was meant to assert the support of the United States for West Germany after the construction of the Berlin Wall. It is considered one of the President’s best speeches, a memorable moment of the Cold War. So how could it incorporate such a ridiculous error, all the more since the speech had been carefully prepared for weeks and there was a team of translators and interpreters at hand? Well, it didn’t. The indefinite article, which indeed has to be omitted when speaking of one’s residence or origin in German, should still be inserted in figurative speech. Thus, the use of ein proves to have been not only correct, but mandatory, as JFK was not trying to convey that he was actually from Berlin, but to express solidarity with its citizens: “Two thousand years ago, the proudest boast was civis romanus sum. Today, in the world of freedom, the proudest boast is Ich bin ein Berliner! […] All free men, wherever they may live, are citizens of Berlin, and therefore, as a free man, I take pride in the words ‘Ich bin ein Berliner!’”7

Sources:

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