We all make mistakes. But some of us make mistakes in a more sophisticated way. Translation should not to be taken for granted, we all know this. Making a mistake while interpreting the sense of the original words can lead to minor embarrassment in the best of cases, or it may be disastrous, in the worst. In short, it can potentially ruin your day… or even your century! The translators that we discuss in this new post probably never imagined that their mistakes would have such huge repercussions, that’s for sure.

Biblical translation mistakes

When our capo, Saint Jerome, patron saint of translators, translated the Bible from Hebrew into Latin, Trados was probably yet to be used (please note, I’m a millennial). The Pope was most likely all over him with impossible deadlines, and then he got hit with an additional 60,000 words for Monday. So, a very stressed out Saint Jerome decided to deliver the whole thing without revising it. Result: Michelangelo’s Moses has two horns on its head.

I might have used my poetic license, but the truth is, the Vulgate of St. Jerome is reportedly full of interpretation errors: approximately 1,400, according to George Lamsa (and Lamsa surely didn’t count double spaces, if he had, the number would have been even bigger). We should note that Saint Jerome was on his own, with no Linguee to help him translate the entire Holy Bible, in the fourth century, before even coffee had been invented. The poor guy did a good job, as far as I’m concerned… But in one of his mistakes, Jerome said that Moses, when coming down Mount Sinai, instead of being surrounded by light beams (karan, in Hebrew), had two horns (keren) on his head  This mistake will remain forever set in stone.

Diplomatic mistakes

We all laughed our heads off when hearing about Moses’ horns, since everyone knows that we take delight in the misfortune of others. But, when it comes to diplomatic translation mistakes, the consequences can be fatal.

Year: 1945. The allies send an ultimatum to Japan, demanding its surrender. Japanese Prime Minister, Kantaro Suzuki, in a press conference, responds: “No comments”. Poor word choice, though. He used the term mokosatzu, which can be interpreted in two (extremely) different ways. The allies, given the current atmosphere, took it to mean: “we ignore this issue”. This itsy bitsy, teeny-weeny misunderstanding resulted in the atomic bombing of Hiroshima.

Suzuki (indirectly) massacred 140,000 Japanese, leaving Jimmy Carter looking like an amateur, as he only managed to anger a few Poles in 1977. Interestingly, he managed to do so with a very overused speech. It was one of those boring ones, filled with fixed expressions and no content whatsoever. Nevertheless, his interpreter heated up things up so much that Poland would be invaded by embarrassment (and this time, the UK and France would do nothing). Clearly, Carter’s interpreter had learned Polish by watching Eastern porn, and he interpreted innocent sentences like “I’m happy to be here in Poland” into “I’m happy to grasp at Poland’s private parts”, or “I want to learn about the desires of the Polish” into “I want to have sex with Poles”. Jimmy Carter surely returned to the US telling all his friends that in Poland, it is extremely easy to get laid.

Good mistakes

But not all mistakes have negative effects. My all-time favourite movie, Mars Attacks, may have never existed without Giovanni Virginio Schiaparelli, who began observing the surface of Mars during the late nineteenth century. In his research, he wrote of “oceans” and “continents”, referring to the darker and lighter areas of the planet’s surface, respectively. And he also made reference to canali, natural rock formations, similar to canyons. In the US, Percival Lowell interpreted the word canali as meaning artificial canals created by Martians, revealing his incredible creativity. The rest is history.

About Antonio Leal Fernández

Graduate degree in Translation and Interpretation from Universidade de Vigo (2013). Translator and proofreader in the German and English to Spanish combinations.

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