We gather knowledge faster than we gather wisdom. - William Bell
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6 Mistranslations That Changed The World
By: Rohan Ramakrishnan April 05, 2011
In a rapidly shrinking world, it's becoming more and more important to have translations that are both lightning-fast and actually understandable. To underline how hard this is, here's that sentence translated from English to Thai to Russian to Japanese and back to English, courtesy of Google Translate: Become increasingly important in order to convert the world to fall faster, as well as lightning, to understand the actual.
A Missed "I" Gives Us Martians
Back in 1877, Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli reported a rather shocking discovery: There were "canali," or canals, on Mars. Since canals are artificial by definition, this caused a shitstorm of speculation about the possibility of a long-vanished race of Martians who must have made the structures to irrigate their crops.
But it wasn't Schiaparelli who really got Martian fever going. Astronomer Percival Lowell read Schiaparelli's work and his Mars boner got so hard that he moved to Arizona, constructed his own observatory and spent years publishing papers speculating that A) Mars was once populated by a civilized race of brilliant engineers, and B) those engineers created these canals as a last-ditch effort to save a dying planet.
There were only two problems: First off, Lowell was basically just drawing canals at random, apparently, as no one has been able to correlate any of his lines with actual stuff on Mars. He might as well have claimed he found ancient Rome in a cow turd.
Second, and more importantly, "canali" doesn't mean "canals," it actually means "channels" or "trenches,' and Schiaparelli was just noting some totally natural terrain differences.
Nikita Khrushchev Wants to Respectfully Mourn You
In 1956, the Cold War was in full swing, which meant that as far as America was concerned, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev was Enemy Asshole No. 1. And he cemented his reputation for douchebaggery when he gave a speech at the Polish Embassy in Moscow. After some opening remarks, Khrushchev went off on how capitalism sucked and communism ruled, capping off the speech with the now-legendary phrase, "We will bury you."
The American media jumped on this story like a fat kid on cake, calling Khrushchev a "red-faced and gesticulating" windbag, and millions of Americans shit their pants at the thought of this uber-aggressive Russian who apparently wanted them all dead.
As it turns out, a better literal translation of his words would have been, "We will be present when you are buried."
This was actually a pretty common saying in Soviet Russia. What Khrushchev really meant was, "We will outlast you."
The Word That Dropped the Atom Bomb
By July 1945, the Allies were ready to put the kibosh on the war in Japan. So they issued the Potsdam Declaration, demanding the unconditional surrender of Japan and threatening "utter destruction." Then the Allies waited like a sixth-grader waiting for his first "Do you like me?" response.
Unsurprisingly, Japanese reporters were pretty eager to find out what the official government response was going to be, and consequently they bugged Japanese Premier Kantaro Suzuki nonstop for a statement. Eventually, Suzuki caved in, called a news conference and said the equivalent of, "No comment. We're still thinking about it." The reporters had to go back unsatisfied, the Japanese government eventually came to a decision and told the U.S., and everything worked out fine.
As you may have guessed, that isn't what happened, and it's all because Suzuki used the word "mokusatsu" as his "no comment" response. The problem is, "mokusatsu" can also mean "we're ignoring it in contempt," and that translation was what was relayed back to the American government. After the steam stopped coming out of Harry Truman's ears, the U.S. revealed the real reason it issued the Potsdam Declaration by dropping the atom bomb on Hiroshima 10 days after Suzuki's comment, and then again on Nagasaki three days later.
Killer Medical Mistranslations
As part of our ongoing attempt to make you terrified of the people who want to save your life, we now turn our attention to the wacky world of medicine. The deal here is that in places with high ethnic diversity -- like, say, New York -- oftentimes the doctors don't speak the same language as their patients, and consequently they have to employ translators. Unfortunately, these translators are mostly just translators, not medical professionals, and that becomes a problem when they have to make snap judgments. One particularly dramatic example of the problem occurred when a young Hispanic man collapsed after complaining of feeling nauseated, or "intoxicado." The translator took this to mean "intoxicated" and assumed the guy was shitfaced, and consequently he was treated for an alcohol and drug overdose.
But it turned out that his nausea was actually due to a blood clot in his brain, which resulted in quadriplegia. If the translator had bothered to clarify that one ambiguous word, the doctors would have had more time to save the guy. But hey, how are American hospitals supposed to know what the word for "stomachache" is in an obscure language like Spanish, which is spoken only by 35 million U.S. residents?
Not all medical mistranslation mishaps happen in the emergency room, though -- in fact, the vast majority occur in pharmacies. Back in 2009, a whole bunch of states passed laws requiring pharmacies to provide translations of their prescriptions to people who need them. Since pharmacies, like most other businesses, are apparently run by cheap bastards, a whole lot of them just used computer programs to do the translations -- a study in the Bronx found that only three percent of pharmacies use professional translators.
One doctor studied the transcripts of 13 pediatric visits of Spanish-speaking patients, six of which involved official professional translators and seven of which involved "ad hoc" interpreters such as family members and nurses. Hope you're sitting down for the results:
The official interpreters made 231 errors; 53 percent of them were judged to have the potential to cause clinical problems. The ad hoc interpreters made 165 errors, and 77 percent of them were potentially dangerous.