Why Translation Fails can Sometimes be Disastrous

Translation is definitely one of the most challenging jobs in the world, where a translator dares to travel, not only from one language to another, but from one culture to another as well. However, it is not a journey of berries and roses. Translators, in fact, face endless barriers in their way to achieve ultimate translation. Nevertheless, we all agree to Alexander Pope that “to err is a human” and any translator may fail to overcome any of these barriers, leading sometimes to unsolvable disasters.

The first famous example of translation fails in the history dates back to the early centuries of Christianity when Saint Jerome translated the Old Testament from Hebrew into Latin. Saint Jerome mistakenly translated “Karan” which means radiance as “keren” which means horn. For centuries, people thought that Moses had horns over his head as he came down from the Mount of Sinai. Ironically, horns became a symbol of wisdom in ancient western culture, thanks to this story. So, when you visit Italy next time, do not be so surprised as you see Michelangelo’s Statue of Moses with small horns over its head.

In modern times, we still witness zillion cases of mistranslations; however, a mistranslation in the world of politics remains the most unforgettable and unforgivable. At the peak of the cold war, the Russian politician Nikita Khrushchev gave a strong speech, from which a phrase was literally translated  as “we will bury you”, and by “You”, he supposedly meant the US. This actually agitated he situation between both countries, as the US took the phrase a crystal clear threat, while Khrushchev only meant “we will be present at your funeral”; thus the Russians will outlive the Americans.

In fact, mistranslations are not always so disastrous, and they may otherwise bring good fortune. Back in the 1950s, as chocolate companies are promoting their new products, a translation mistake was made, resulting into a belief that women are obliged to gift men with chocolates on Valentine’s Day. According to the Japanese culture, men have to gift women back and this actually happens one month later on the White Day. Now, thanks to this translation mistake, everyone is happy: men, women, and above all chocolate companies.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *