Historical Translation Mistakes

Let me be among the many who frequently dispel the myth that perfection is achievable. Nobody is perfect, we all know that. This even extends to us translators and our work. If we were perfect, well, we’d be saying adiós to the world of revision and proofreading for sure. But, what is the difference between the accidental missed double space and the misinterpretation of meaning? Well, the latter might just leave us with some serious, and sometimes quite fatal, consequences. So true is that translators can make missteps that we’ve decided to write this blog as a continuation of our first post about translator blunders. No, seriously, there is enough to write two blogs about it. As such, I present to you: Historical Translation Mistakes.


The accidental Soviet threat.

Let’s broaden our translation mistakes to the political sphere. To set the context, the height of the cold war was a particularly turbulent and unstable time with relations between the Soviets and western countries being at their peak fragility. It was a time during which the top leaders from both sides would calculate and carefully plan each and every speech with a wider view of not worsening the already dire situation. So, what does translation have to do with it? Well, you’ve probably already guessed it, a good ol’translation blunder managed to find its way into the equation and, naturally, left things just a little worse off.

In 1956, during a speech at the Polish Embassy in Moscow that was celebrating Communism and condemning Capitalism, Soviet Head of State, Nikita Khrushchev, was quoted as saying “we will bury you”. Given the context of a possible nuclear war on the horizon and with the mistake being blasted over all media outlets, Americans were outraged and feared an imminent attack.

So, where did our dear interpreter go so wrong? Well, the more literal translation of what Khrushchev was trying to convey would be “we’ll be present at your graves”. Still, a little frightening, right? Well, not if we consider that this was a common Soviet expression and was intended to mean that Communism would outlast Capitalism. The message actually should read something more along the lines of “We are the champions”; a sentiment I’m sure Americans can understand a lot easier.


Waterway building Martians.

Finally, we come to what I consider to be the pièce de résistance of translation mistakes: the accidental creation of Martian beings.

Would you really believe if I told you that the concept of life on Mars actually came from a translation slip-up?

In 1877, Italian astronomer Giovanni Virginio Schiaparelli was attempting to map out the surface of Mars by writing down what he saw through his telescope. To distinguish between the darker and lighter areas he saw, the astronomer noted there being “seas”, “continents” and, where the lighter areas would run into the darker ones, “channels”. It was this latter term’s mistranslation into “canals” that left English astronomers astonished by what Schiaparelli had found. Not only had he supposedly found water on the planet but also life forces that were intelligent enough to create water canals on it. It was only in 1894 when things started really hitting the fan when American astronomer Percival Lowell spent a year studying these so-called “canals” and wrote several books on them to prove their veracity. It was these books which inspired the novelist H.G. Wells to write “The War of the Worlds” in 1897 in which he wrote of Martians coming down to invade Earth. This, in turn, unintentionally started off an entire genre: Sci-Fi.





About Christian Copeland

Graduate Degree in Modern Languages and Translation (French/Spanish) from Cardiff University, UK. Studied in UNIGE, Geneva, Switzerland and Universidad de Santiago de Compostela, Spain. English teacher, translator and proofreader in the French and Spanish to English combinations.

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