Many of us who learn languages end up using those skills professionally as translators and interpreters. But humans are fallible and we tend to forget that, up until recently, most of the population of the Western world was illiterate. Learning languages was the sign of a privileged education and translating texts was a task accomplished by a select few for a very small audience — leading to blunders that are still perpetuated today. Here are a few examples.
The Waitangi Treaty
Signing agreements is serious business, especially if you’re signing a bad translation. When the Maori chiefs signed the Waitangi Treaty with the English, it was imperfectly translated into the Maori language, stating the natives would have control over their territory but would surrender governance to the English, maintaining authority and control over their land. The English version, however, demanded a surrender of sovereignty in all of its rights and powers. So New Zealand became a colony instead of an independent land.
Pepsi is necromantic
In the 1960s, Pepsi’s slogan, “Come Alive With the Pepsi Generation,” arrived in China to very negative responses. The reason? In Chinese, the slogan translates to “Pepsi brings your relatives back from the dead.”
A buried meaning
Nikita Kruschev infamously concluded a Cold-War-era speech with a threat directed at America: “We will bury you!” Needless to say, this blood-thirsty statement whipped up American fear and outrage. But the true translation of his words is more like, “we will be present when you are buried,” which is a common Russian phrase meaning, essentially, “we will outlast you.”
Lodewijk Napoleon was crowned king of Holland in 1806 by his brother, Napoleon Bonaparte. Eager to please his people and to be loved by the general population, he changed his name from Ludovic to Lodewijk and declared himself Dutch rather than French. His language skills, however, were initially so poor he ended up declaring himself the “Rabbit of ‘Olland” (“Konijn van ‘Olland”) instead of “King of Holland” (“Koning van Holland”).
According to interpreter John Coleman-Holmes in his book Mâcher du Coton, a Spanish delegate once apologized to the other delegates at a conference for having a cold: “Estoy constipado, perdóname!” But his Spanish was rendered into French as, “I am constipated, please excuse me!” The interpreter attempted a swift explanation, but was only met with laughter and ridicule.
The horned one
According to the Torah, when Moses descends from Mount Sinai bearing the ten commandments, he is glowing with karan, “radiance.” But written Hebrew has no vowels, and St. Jerome, the patron saint of translators who learned Hebrew to translate the Bible into Latin, confused karan with keren and turned radiant Moses into a horned one. So with one typo the man gained horns, a representation that can be found in Michelangelo’s Moses, for instance.
The pen is mightier than the penis
Branding is serious business and one bad translation is enough to make a product fail. When Parker Pen expanded into Mexico, its slogan read, “It won’t leak in your pocket and embarrass you.” But the verb to embarrass was confused with embarazada, a false cognate in Spanish, so the product was promoted with the translation, “It won’t leak in your pocket and make you pregnant.”
Jimmy Carter seduces Poland
When US President Jimmy Carter traveled to Poland in 1977 for a news conference, he was subjected to a succession of verbal faux pas. The interpreter responsible for conveying the President’s English into Polish mangled his words, using the occasional Russian term and abusing the Polish language. When the President mentioned he had left the US that morning, the interpreter stated he had left the country never to return. To add insult to injury, the President’s desire to “come to learn your opinions and understand your desires for the future” was rendered erotically as a strong lust to “get to know the Poles carnally.”
Things didn’t get much better when the replacement interpreter sat silently while the President spoke. Apparently he could not understand Jimmy Carter’s southern accent and chose not to speak, for fear of committing further diplomatic sins.
Jimmy strikes again
In 1981, while giving a speech to a small Methodist college in Japan, President Carter opened with a joke. The interpreter spoke to the crowd, and the audience immediately erupted into laughter. Surprised by the joke’s success, Carter asked the interpreter how he’d managed to elicit such a reaction. The interpreter reluctantly admitted that he had said, “President Carter told a funny story. Everyone must laugh.”
Lazy in translation
In 2009, HSBC bank scrambled to fix a $10 million rebranding campaign after their catchphrase “Assume Nothing” was mistranslated as “Do Nothing” in various countries.