With technology today, it’s easy to pick up your phone and ask Siri for a word or phrase in another language. Technology has advanced, so arguably, there will be less mistakes in translation. But it has taken a long time to get to this point.
Communication is vital for society, and even the world, in order to function. The sharing of knowledge and ideas, relationships and trade, are just a few key examples of where communication is important.
But, what happens when words or phrases have been lost in translation? From small things to a change in story, or more important things like, I don’t know…. An atomic bomb!
Pepsi’s brand slogan
In the early 70’s, Pepsi launched a slogan ‘Come alive with the Pepsi Generation’. When this was launched globally and translated into other languages, the outcome wasn’t as intended! In China, the phrase translated to ‘Pepsi brings your ancestors back from the grave’. I wonder what their reactions were?
Cinderella and her glass slipper
Everyone knows that cinderella left a glass slipper behind when she ran away from Prince Charming at midnight.
It turns out that her slipper may have been lost in translation and not featured in the original story. The story we all know and love comes from France.
The problem in translation is due to similarities in pronunciation and spelling between ‘vair and ‘verre’. The first version to make reference to a glass slipper was by a French author Charles Perrault, as ‘pantoufle en verre’.
However, the original made reference to ‘pantoufle en verre’ which translates to a squirrel-fur slipper.
The phrase abominable snowman dates back to 1921, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.
It was reported by Henry Newman, who interviewed an expedition team led by Sir Charles Howard-Bury for an article for The Times newspaper. The expedition team had allegedly seen a set of enormous human like footprints in the snow.
Local guides had told stories about a legendary monster known as metoh kangmi. ‘Kangmi’ means ‘snow-man’, but ‘metoh’ means ‘dirty’. Newman mistranslated ‘metoh’ to mean abominable snowman, which was not the original description, but has stuck ever since.
Life on Mars
In 1877, history was made when scientists believed there was life on Mars after Italian astronomer, Giovanni Schiaparelli had discovered Canals on the planet. It later transpired, when his writing was translated, that the Italian word “canali” actually means channels, not canels. Therefore, the terrain on Mars Schiaparelli was describing, was natural, not man made.
The Treaty of Waitangi
In the 18th and 19th century, the British Government negotiated with native New Zealanders a formal agreement to recognise New Zealand as a British Colony. The Treaty of Waitangi was written in English and subsequently translated into Maori.
The problem was in the in translation of the treaty, which has since caused many problems for governments.
The British settlers believed the Treaty gave total sovereignty over the Maori people and the Maori land. However, the people of Maori signed the treaty because they believed it would only allow the British to use their land, not own it.
This has resulted in years of struggle between Maori descendants and settlers, all because of the root translation issues.
The world’s first atomic bomb
The famous atomic bomb that was dropped by the Americans in order to put an end to the deadly war in Japan, was actually a result of mistranslation.
The phrase “Mokusatsu” was said by Kantara Suzuki, after being pressured to respond to the demand to surrender. This is the Japanese word for silence, because he had not yet had a chance to consider his decision.
Unfortunately for Suzuki, “Mokusatsu” is an ambiguous word and there are many different interpretations of the word “Mokusatsu” and the international agencies thought Suzuki was confirming a surrender was off the cards.
One of the most embarrassing moments in US diplomatic history occurred on New Years Eve, 1977. Jimmy Carter’s interpreter mis translated a phrase that instead of communicating positive desires for the future, communicated a sexual desire to Poland and saying “grasping for Poland’s private parts”. Safe to say, this was his last translation job.
The Escalation of the Cold War
In a speech from Nikita Khrushchev in 1956 about communism, accidentally escalated the Cold War. He used the phrase “My vas pokhoronim”, which translates to “we will bury you”. The translation was correct – but this time it was the meaning that was misinterpreted. In Russia, this common saying means you will survive to see the funeral. Ooops.
Serious health consequences…. And $71 million settlement
In 1980, Willie Ramirez was admitted to hospital due to a bleeding in the brain. His family, who spoke Spanish, described him to the doctors as “intoxicado”. This was mis-translated to the wrong medical term, and the doctors thought he was drunk. Actually, the Spanish word been poisoned. Unfortunately, Ramirez was left quadriplegic due to time and efforts being spent elsewhere. The family sued and won $71 million as a result.
Did you know that women give men chocolates on Valentine’s day in Japan? This tradition, which is still going today, started because of a mis translation by the chocolate company Morozoff, who bought Valentines Day to Japan. Due to a mis-translation in their campaign, the people of Japan thought women had to buy chocolates for men.
These are just some examples from around the world. Some are small and funny translations, whereas others have changed history or held a risk to someone’s life.
It’s important, especially when dealing with legal, medical or serious events, that you hire a professional translation agency. One with full credentials and a good reputation.
Things to avoid
- Machines. Google and Siri are great companions, but even modern-day artificial intelligence may not be advanced enough to deal with such cases.
- Word-for-word translation. Every language is unique, structure, tenses and word order can be significantly different in different languages. Don’t just assume by translating each word you’ll get the right phrase.
- Body language and tone. Just a slightly different tone or hand signal can completely change a phrase. You need to take into consideration the audience and the setting it is being used. We can pull funny faces or do funny things with our hands without even realising. Be care this doesn’t turn around what you’re saying.
- Gender. A lot of languages have gender specific nouns. Ensure you are using the right words, in the right term and to the right person.
So, the moral of the story: make sure you are confident your words, or any documents have been translated properly, or else it can have some serious consequences!
Have you ever fallen victim to a word, event or document lost in translation?