Translation Mistakes Throughout History

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By: Elias David Jacob

The art of translation has been around for centuries, but unfortunately so have translation mistakes. In this article I’d like to describe three such errors which led to surprising and humorous results.

The origin of the theory that there is life on Mars actually stems from a mistranslation of an Italian word by Italian astronomer Giovanni Virginio Schiaparelli. In 1877, he used the word “canali” to refer to a dense network of linear structures he observed on the planet’s surface. The most common translation of this word in English is “channels”, but it was translated into English as “canals” instead, suggesting some kind of artificial construction. If the word “channels” had been used, the essence of the Italian word would have been preserved and there may not have been any thought given as to who could have possibly built canals on Mars. The theory about intelligent life on Mars survived for decades and inspired numerous stories, folklore and science fiction.

While Valentine’s Day is generally celebrated on February 14th, in some Asian countries like China, South Korea and in particular Japan, it is celebrated with a twist: women are the ones that give chocolates to men. In the 50s, a Japanese chocolate company started encouraging people to celebrate Valentine’s Day. However, there was a translation mistake in one of the advertisements of one of the Japanese chocolate companies which led people to think that women were the ones supposed to give chocolate to men. So that’s what they started doing and the tradition is still going on to this day. Japanese chocolate companies then started encouraging the celebration of another day exactly a month later, every 14th of March, when “White Day” is celebrated. On that day men are supposed to gift women something white like marshmallows, white cake or jewels. The Japanese word okaeshi is usually used on this day to express the idea of a gift given as thanks for receiving another gift. 

American author Mark Twain had the habit of reading those of his works that had been translated into other languages. One of his earliest popular works was “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.” Twain himself had translated this story into French. Some years later, he read an article in Revue des Deux Mondes in which the author said that since he didn’t see what was funny in Twain’s text he translated it himself into French. Twain thought that translation so bad that he translated it back into English, word for word, thus making fun of back translation and illustrating its limitations. He maintained the French word order and grammatical structure so the result didn’t make much sense and looked like something a machine translation tool would produce. Twain ended up publishing his back translation in a later edition of his short story which he named “The Jumping Frog: in English, then in French, and then Clawed Back into a Civilized Language Once More by Patient, Unremunerated Toil.”

To summarize, even if they started as simple errors, translation errors can still impact us today. For example, a simple Google search shows that many newspaper articles about life on Mars were published this very week. Moral: translators should be very careful about their work and be aware that even little translation errors can have a big impact on the future. Who knows, maybe in a few years life on a previously undiscovered planet might be traced back to a translator’s mistake?

Elias Jacob is finishing his bachelor’s degree in Translation at Instituto Nueva Formación in Córdoba, Argentina. Some of his interests are academic research in linguistics and translation and software and tools for translators. �֕<@�

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