Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Some epic mistranslations, Part 1

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In 1877 Italian astronomer and director of Milan’s Brera Observatory, Giovanni Virginio Schiaparelli, began mapping Mars.

Giovanni Virginio Schiaparelli

His mapping described dark and light areas on the planet’s surface as ‘seas’ and ‘continents’. He thought that there were also channels visible, labelling them with the Italian word ‘canali’. Others took this to mean that they were ‘canals’, giving rise to a theory that they had been created by intelligent lifeforms on Mars. Between 1894 and 1895 US astronomer Percival Lowell, convinced that the canals were real constructions, mapped hundreds of them.

Percival Lowell

The belief that there was, or had been, intelligent life on Mars, as evidenced by the Martian canals, fostered numerous sci fi stories and films. Alas, there are no canals and no channels, according to NASA. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.
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US President Jimmy Carter traveled to Poland in 1977 and was provided a Russian interpreter who knew Polish. Unfortunately he was not used to interpreting professionally in that language. Through the interpreter, Carter ended up saying things in Polish like:
  • “I left the United States, never to return”, when what he had actually said was “I left the United States this morning”;
  • "your lusts for the future" for "your desires for the future"; 
  • “I am happy to grasp at Poland's private parts” for” I am happy to be in Poland.”
Later in the same trip Carter gave a speech at a banquet but using a different interpreter. Carter was perplexed that when he made points and paused, there was no reaction. It turned out that the interpreter, not understanding Carter’s Southern accent, had simply remained quiet.
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At the height of the Cold War, Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev gave a speech in which he spoke a phrase that was interpreted from Russian as "We will bury you." It was taken as chilling threat to bury the U.S. with a nuclear attack and escalated the tension between the U.S. and Russia. However, the translation of the Russian phrase was more correctly that "We will live to see you buried" or "We will outlast you." 

Not quite as threatening.
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Whilst on things Kruschev, I can’t resist reposting an item from some years back, a quote by Kruschev:

"The main difference for the history of the world if I had been shot rather than Kennedy is that Onassis probably wouldn't have married Mrs Khrushchev."


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In 2009, HSBC bank had to launch a $10 million rebranding campaign to repair the damage done when its catchphrase "Assume Nothing" was mistranslated as "Do Nothing" in various countries.

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Also the subject of a past Bytes:

St. Jerome, the patron saint of translators, studied Hebrew so he could translate the Old Testament into Latin from the original, instead of from the third century Greek version that everyone else had used. The resulting Latin version, which became the basis for hundreds of subsequent translations, contained a famous mistake. 

When Moses comes down from Mount Sinai his head has "radiance" or, in Hebrew, "karan." But Hebrew is written without the vowels, and St. Jerome had read "karan" as "keren," or "horned." From this error came centuries of paintings and sculptures of Moses with horns and the odd offensive stereotype of the horned Jew.


Michelangelo’s horned Moses.




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