Etymology #7: The greatest mistranslations ever

By | April 7, 2023

Translation is an essential part of communication between different cultures and languages. Whether it is for business, diplomacy, or entertainment, translation can be a powerful tool to bridge gaps and foster mutual understanding. However, translation is also a delicate and complex process that requires skill and attention to detail. Even the smallest mistake can result in a mistranslation that can cause confusion, offense, or even disaster. So trust Lengua Translations to handle your translations and ensure that your message is conveyed accurately and effectively across different languages and cultures!

Throughout history, there have been many examples of translation errors with disastrous consequences. From political blunders to marketing mishaps, mistranslations have often led to unintended and embarrassing outcomes. In this article, we will explore some of the worst examples of translation errors and their impact on different fields.

Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev’s infamous “We will bury you” speech almost started World War III after a mistranslation in 1956. The statement, which was intended to criticize the capitalist system, was misinterpreted as a direct threat to the US. However, the phrase can also be translated as “We shall be present at your funeral”, “We shall outlive you”, or “We shall outlast you.” In the full context, Khrushchev was referring to ideology and history-making rather than warfare. Khrushchev himself clarified that he did not mean a literal burial, but rather that the working class would surpass capitalism. Different translators suggest alternative translations for the phrase, which significantly alters its meaning.

During his visit to Poland in 1977, President Jimmy Carter’s translator, Steven Seymour, made a series of translation errors that resulted in significant embarrassment. Carter’s genuine interest in learning about the Polish people’s aspirations for the future was mistakenly translated by Seymour as a sexual desire for the Polish people. Additionally, Carter’s expression of happiness to be in Poland was distorted by Seymour, who used vulgar language to describe a sexual act. Finally, Seymour mistranslated Carter’s statement about his trip, suggesting that the President had abandoned the United States permanently.

Translation errors can also have disastrous consequences in marketing and advertising. A great marketing mishap occurred when Kentucky Fried Chicken launched its “Finger-lickin’ good” slogan in China. The translation used the phrase “Eat your fingers off,” which understandably did not go over well with the Chinese public. Also in China, a misinterpretation of Pepsi’s famous slogan “Come alive! You’re in the Pepsi generation” led to a bizarre translation that implied Pepsi could revive dead ancestors, which is quite unsettling.

The anecdote about the Chevrolet Nova not selling well in Spanish-speaking countries because “Nova” in Spanish would mean “does not go” is also often used to warn against not doing proper research before introducing a product to the international market. Ironically, those who use this example are themselves failing to do adequate research, as the story is not true. The truth is that the Chevrolet Nova’s name didn’t significantly affect its sales and that the two words “no va” are pronounced differently in Spanish than “nova”.

Translation errors can also have a significant impact on literature and culture. A literary loss occurred with the translation of the Bible into English. The original Hebrew text used the word “almah” to refer to a young woman, but this was translated into the Greek word “parthenos,” which means “virgin.” This led to the belief that Mary, the mother of Jesus, was a virgin, and this belief has had a profound impact on Christian theology and culture. However, it is not really clear if this translation is really an error, it is more a loss of information. In the Septuagint translation, the word “almah” is translated as “neanis/neotes”, which describes a young girl who has just become of marriageable age and is likely a virgin, but her virginity is not the main focus. In contrast, “betulah” is translated as “parthenos”, which specifically emphasizes virginity. However, there are exceptions to this translation pattern, as seen in other biblical passages such as Genesis 24:43. This highlights the difficulty of translating words with specific cultural connotations, and the challenge of balancing accuracy with preserving the original writing style.

Translation errors can have significant consequences in different fields, from politics to marketing to literature. While some mistakes may seem trivial, they can have long-lasting effects on culture and history. The key to avoiding these errors is to ensure that translators have the necessary skills and expertise to accurately convey the intended meaning of the original text. Additionally, it is essential to have native speakers and subject matter experts review translations to catch any mistakes or misunderstandings. By taking these steps, we can ensure that translation remains a powerful tool for communication and understanding between cultures and languages.

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