9 Little Translation Mistakes That Caused Big Problems

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Knowing how to speak two languages is not the same thing as knowing how to translate. Translation is a special skill that professionals work hard to develop. In their book Found in Translation, professional translators Nataly Kelly and Jost Zetzsche give a spirited tour of the world of translation, full of fascinating stories about everything from volunteer text message translators during the Haitian earthquake rescue effort, to the challenges of translation at the Olympics and the World Cup, to the personal friendships celebrities like Yao Ming and Marlee Matlin have with their translators.

The importance of good translation is most obvious when things go wrong. Here are nine examples from the book that show just how high-stakes the job of translation can be.

1. The seventy-one-million-dollar word

In 1980, 18-year-old Willie Ramirez was admitted to a Florida hospital in a comatose state. His friends and family tried to describe his condition to the paramedics and doctors who treated him, but they only spoke Spanish. Translation was provided by a bilingual staff member who translated "intoxicado" as "intoxicated." A professional interpreter would have known that "intoxicado" is closer to "poisoned" and doesn't carry the same connotations of drug or alcohol use that "intoxicated" does. Ramirez's family believed he was suffering from food poisoning. He was actually suffering from an intracerebral hemorrhage, but the doctors proceeded as if he were suffering from an intentional drug overdose, which can lead to some of the symptoms he displayed. Because of the delay in treatment, Ramirez was left quadriplegic. He received a malpractice settlement of $71 million.

2. Your lusts for the future

When President Carter traveled to Poland in 1977, the State Department hired a Russian interpreter who knew Polish, but was not used to interpreting professionally in that language. Through the interpreter, Carter ended up saying things in Polish like "when I abandoned the United States" (for "when I left the United States") and "your lusts for the future" (for "your desires for the future"), mistakes that the media in both countries very much enjoyed.

3. We will bury you

At the height of the cold war, Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev gave a speech in which he uttered a phrase that 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 was a bit too literal. The sense of the Russian phrase was more that "we will live to see you buried" or "we will outlast you." Still not exactly friendly, but not quite so threatening.

4. Do nothing

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.

5. Markets tumble

A panic in the world's foreign exchange market led the U.S. dollar to plunge in value after a poor English translation of an article by Guan Xiangdong of the China News Service zoomed around the Internet. The original article was a casual, speculative overview of some financial reports, but the English translation sounded much more authoritative and concrete.

6. What's that on Moses's head?

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.

7. Chocolates for him

In the 50s, when chocolate companies began encouraging people to celebrate Valentine's Day in Japan, a mistranslation from one company gave people the idea that it was customary for women to give chocolate to men on the holiday. And that's what they do to this day. On February 14, the women of Japan shower their men with chocolate hearts and truffles, and on March 14 the men return the favor. An all around win for the chocolate companies!

8. You must defeat Sheng Long

In the Japanese video game Street Fighter II a character says, "if you cannot overcome the Rising Dragon Punch, you cannot win!" When this was translated from Japanese into English, the characters for "rising dragon" were interpreted as "Sheng Long." The same characters can have different readings in Japanese, and the translator, working on a list of phrases and unaware of the context, thought a new person was being introduced to the game. Gamers went crazy trying to figure out who this Sheng Long was and how they could defeat him. In 1992, as an April Fools Day joke, Electronic Gaming Monthly published elaborate and difficult to execute instructions for how to find Sheng Long. It wasn't revealed as a hoax until that December, after countless hours had no doubt been wasted.

9. Trouble at Waitangi

In 1840, the British government made a deal with the Maori chiefs in New Zealand. The Maori wanted protection from marauding convicts, sailors, and traders running roughshod through their villages, and the British wanted to expand their colonial holdings. The Treaty of Waitangi was drawn up and both sides signed it. But they were signing different documents. In the English version, the Maori were to "cede to Her Majesty the Queen of England absolutely and without reservation all the rights and powers of Sovereignty." In the Maori translation, composed by a British missionary, they were not to give up sovereignty, but governance. They thought they were getting a legal system, but keeping their right to rule themselves. That's not how it turned out, and generations later the issues around the meaning of this treaty are still being worked out.

Can You Pick the Body Parts Described by the Adjectives?

The History Behind 7 New York City Street Names

deberarr/istock via getty images
deberarr/istock via getty images

Modern life means constantly rushing to get places, especially in New York. Whether it’s the daily grind to get to work or the rush to hit happy hour, residents are probably concentrating more on getting somewhere than carefully considering the details of their surroundings.

But next time you're in New York—or if you're a resident already—try looking up from your phone to take a peek at the street names above you. Along with your more common numbered designations and things like "Park Avenue," you’ll notice the city has some pretty strange denominations. Here are seven of the more eye-catching, and the brief history behind their names.

1. Asser Levy Place

Tucked between the generically named 23rd and 25th streets, Asser Levy Place stands out like a sore thumb. Located not far from Stuyvesant Town, this unassuming street bears the name for a pretty prominent historical figure.

Said to have been born in what is now Poland and Lithuania, Asser Levy was one of the first Jewish settlers to land in the predominantly Dutch New Amsterdam. The governor at the time, Peter Stuyvesant, was “violently opposed” to the freshly emigrated Jewish community, unhappy at the fact that they were now allowed to trade and reside within the area [PDF]. Levy was not only the first kosher butcher in the land but also the first Jew to gain rights of citizenship in the country. Additionally, Levy donated funds to help New York fight the British Crown, and eventually took up arms against the British himself.

2. Maiden Lane

The history behind Maiden Lane’s designation is just as picturesque as it sounds. Known to Dutch settlers as Maagde Paatje (or “maiden path”), this portion of land once ran alongside a brook where women and girls would wash clothing. There are darker associations with the area too, though: Maiden Lane also saw a brutal slave revolt in 1712.

Today the street is one of many centers of commerce for the city, although the concrete still holds remnants of the city’s more ornate past. Passersby can take a look at the Barthman Clock, a 19th-century timepiece embedded into the intersection of Maiden Lane and Broadway.

3. Mott Street

Located primarily in the heart of Chinatown, Mott Street’s modern associations aren’t the most flattering. Once the site of multiple crime scenes and illegal activities, the street has garnered a somewhat seedy reputation over time.

But before it became affiliated with the seedy underbelly, Mott Street had patriotic associations. Joseph Mott, the street’s namesake, owned a tavern used as headquarters for General George Washington in 1775. His descendants proved dedicated to equally worthy causes, with Dr. Valentine Mott rising to prominence as one of America’s most influential surgeons.

4. Pearl Street

Before the concrete jungle fully took over, the streets of New York were dominated by oysters. Due to their bountiful number, the shells of shucked clams would pile up into what archaeologists call middens—large piles of domestic waste that have survived the centuries. One particularly large heap was located on the modern-day Pearl Street, giving rise to the mollusk-related moniker. Oddly, however, these oysters were not the pearl-producing kind—although they dominated a good portion of the New York market for quite some time.

5. Minetta Lane

Speaking of water-related items, did you know a once-babbling creek was paved over by one of the city’s more famous streets? That’s right: Known to the Dutch as Mintje Kill or “small stream,” Minetta Brook was “[a] brisk little brook full of trout,” according to one 19th century source, that was covered by the city’s expansion around the 1820s. It was also where a community of “half free” African Americans resided in the 17th century—former enslaved people that were allowed to live on the land by paying annual fees.

6. MacDougal Street

MacDougal Street is known for its vibrant nightlife and for hosting the early days of Bob Dylan’s career. But it also holds claim to a not-so-well-known spelling error.

The street was named for one Alexander Mcdougall, a Scotsman who emigrated to what would become the United States as a child in 1740 and settled in New York. Mcdougall made a name for himself in the mercantile trade and shipping business and was an early defender of American independence. He openly voiced his opinions against British rule, and was even imprisoned for passing out revolutionary pamphlets. His colorful life saw him commissioned as a colonel in the First New York Infantry during the Revolutionary War, become a member of the Continental Congress, and rise as the first president of the Bank of New York. However, how or why the second L in his name was dropped in the naming of the street remains a mystery.

7. Margaret Corbin Drive

Located at the city’s far northern tip, Margaret Corbin Drive is named for a young Pennsylvanian woman whose tough life molded her into a tougher lady. Her childhood saw the death of her father by Native Americans and her mother’s capture soon after; years later, the British killed her husband during the Battle of Fort Washington. Margaret, who was standing by his side at the time, quickly took his place in the conflict by handling his cannon—receiving several bullets as a result.

The U.S. government recognized her bravery by providing her disability compensation (as well as rum and whiskey rations) for many years. Although sometimes remembered as a “haughty and disagreeable eccentric,” the affectionately called “Captain Molly” is forever memorialized by the street running along the site where her brave acts took place.

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