3 Times Translation Changed History

Last Updated August 25, 2017

An exploration of what could have been…

While communication has been the basic determinant for human development, translation has made it all possible.

Sometimes, it served a good purpose by spreading new ideas or inventions, on other occasions, incorrect wording resulted or might have resulted in a war and bloodshed. In some cases, translation (or mistranslation) excessively changed the turn of events.

In a galaxy far, far away

Have you ever wondered why we’re so obsessed with Martians? Why an extraterrestrial race which occurs in  movies or literature is never from Mercury or Venus? You can blame for it Percival Lowell, a 19th century astronomer, who simply mistranslated the work of a fellow Italian – Giovanni Schiaparelli.

In 1877, Schiaparelli discovered what he called canali in Italian. He couldn’t predict that this word alone would start a revolution in the way we think about aliens. Percival Lowell translated canali as canals, which by definition are artificially made, hence some intelligent race had to make them. In fact, canali should have been translated as “channels” or “trenches”, and the whole hype on Martian engineers should have never started.

Eat, pray, translate

Religious texts are so old that it comes as no surprise that there are a lot of mistranslations in them. Their original languages or dialect have fallen out of use and a lot of information was simply lost in translation.

The Vulgate was the first translation of the Bible, made by St. Jerome into Latin in 382 AD. For about a thousand years, this was the only version of the Bible that Christians ever knew.

If you look at any medieval or renaissance statue portraying Moses, the chances are you may see something odd — he has horns. It’s because of St. Jerome’s translation of the Hebrew word karan. He deciphered it as cornuta which indeed means “horned”. Modern translators say, however, that a more suitable translation would be “shining” or “radiant”.

War and Peace

“After God, Marina was the main reason for my success”

This is what Hernán Cortés said after he had conquered Mexico. He referred to La Malinche (whom he called Marina) – a native woman who served him as a Nahuatl language interpreter. She played a huge role in the conquest of the Aztecs, and also became Cortés’ lover and the mother of his first son. Nowadays, La Malinche is considered a symbol of treason by some people in Latin America. Others think that without her translations, the massacre of the native people of Mexico would have been even more bloody.

When the Allies asked Japan to surrender in the World War II, the Japanese prime minister said: Mokusatsu. This was translated as “Not worthy of a comment”, which was taken as an offence. The translator of this word didn’t check all its meanings. What the Japanese prime minister might have been thinking of is “No comment. We have to think about it”. Ten days later, the first atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki.

Only a decade later, during the most heated period of the cold war, Nikita Khrushchev gave a speech in the Polish embassy in Moscow, which could have had really serious consequences. Referring to the USSR’s biggest enemy at the time – the USA, he used a popular Russian saying “We will outlive you”. Khrushchev only wanted to mark the superiority of communism over capitalism, but his words were mistranslated into “We will bury you”. For the Americans it meant that the Soviets were really ready to use the nuclear weapons and destroy the USA.

Lesson for today? Translation matters.

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