Nov 06, 2012

The Perilous Business of Translation

written by RussTech

The task of the translator, like that of the referee in a soccer game, is a thankless one. When you have done your job really well, people are not supposed to notice you at all. If you are talked about, it is probably because, at best, you have done something funny or, at worst, caused a major international incident. Some translation gaffes have become the stuff of legend. Some, in fact, seem to have begun as legends (e.g. the mistranslation of Grapes of Wrath as Angry Raisins). This article will present a short taxonomy of translation errors with a few examples in each type, moving from the sublime to the ridiculous.

And what could be more sublime than translation problems at the ethical roots of Western civilization? The most familiar version of the sixth commandment is “Thou shalt not kill,” from the original King James Bible. Most recent translations, including the revised KJV, have it as “Thou shalt not murder,” which of course has much narrower connotations (a little too narrow, argue some scholars).  The original KJV translation covers an awful lot of ground in this commandment, and people continue to use that familiar wording to argue against all sorts of killing, including the death penalty, eating meat, and any war that comes along. Whatever the non-Biblical ethics surrounding those types of killing, the book of Deuteronomy certainly makes no consistent attempt to condemn them. Those who cite the Ten Commandments to argue against these particular types of killing are making use of a misleadingly broad translation of the Hebrew verb tirtsach.

Fortunately, most questionable translations do not pertain to the very moral foundations of our culture. Some merely create temporary international incidents, as a recent mistranslation of the UN Secretary General’s position on Sudan, and an error that had the Vatican suddenly condoning birth control devices. Others merely lead to delays and profit losses by causing confusion about the terms of international contracts.

And then there are the many translation errors that just lead to a few snickers. The Internet is full of these, and some have been passed along through so many rumor mills that it might be impossible to verify that they ever actually happened. But some certainly did happen. The famous translation of Coca-Cola as a Chinese phrase meaning “Bite the Wax Tadpole” has a basis in reality (according to, though it was not the company itself that perpetrated it. Sites such as are rife with examples of hilariously bad translations. Most of these errors leave readers scratching their heads in wonder at how anyone might have come up with such a ridiculous wording.

But sometimes the culprit is clearly implicated… As machine translation becomes more common and more accessible, it begins to emerge as its own category of error. In some cases this just creates a harmless laugh for native speakers of the language in which the error occurred, as in this Chinese restaurant sign that mistakenly used a software error message as a translation. Sometimes the humor is more a matter of irony than slapstick, as in the magazine article on the importance of good translation that used an incorrect machine rendering of the phrase “lost in translation” in Japanese as part of its introductory graphics. At other times, problems with machine translation become a little more serious, as the State of Washington recently found out with its use of Systran to translate the Secretary of State website.

So what lessons should we all learn from all these different levels of translation error? Put most generally, we should be aware that producing an accurate and natural-sounding translation requires a well-trained human being with sufficient time to think about what he or she is doing. Mistakes in translation are easy to make and difficult to retract, and the importance of their consequences are in direct proportion to the importance of the original. If you read a translation and nothing sounds awkward or questionable, there is a person or team of people whose training and effort went into making that happen.

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