Everybody makes mistakes, including translators. But while some translation mistakes only shed linguistic subtleties, others can be much more consequential. Sometimes these consequences can be serious; at others, these translation mistakes result in something delightful.
In today’s blog post—the first of two—we’ll be looking at examples of both.
06. Bad Translation Gave the Prophet Moses Horns
This is perhaps the most famous mistranslation in history. If you’ve ever been to Rome, you may have come across Michelangelo’s statue Moses, which adorns the tomb of Pope Julius II. Though beautiful, it has a puzzling detail:
Moses has horns—as in a devil’s horns—on his head.
This is because of St. Jerome, who studied Hebrew in order to translate the Old Testament into Latin. The result, the Vulgate, misinterpreted the word “qeren” in Exodus 34:30. In the story, Moses receives a second set of commandments from God, and walks down the mountain to relate them to his followers, unaware of a change in his person. But St. Jerome took “qeren” to mean “horned”; it’s actually supposed to mean “radiant.”
The imagery consequently wound-up in hundreds of artworks. Funnily, there is some debate on whether this was a mistranslation or if the horns have symbolic value. Either way, the results are striking.
05. A Subtle Mistranslation Created Martians
In 1877, an Italian astronomer named Giovanni Schiaparelli was observing Mars, mapping something he labeled canali.
The American astronomer Percival Lowell read the published result and became enthralled with what it suggested. He was so thrilled, in fact, he kept observing Mars and tracing along evidence of these canali, publishing papers and no fewer than three books about them.
The reason lies in mistranslation. Schiaparelli wrote canali meaning “channels”; the word was translated as “canals.” There is a subtle difference between the two words: canals are man-made, but channels are natural. In other words, canals imply intelligent life: martians.
Lowell’s takes would ultimately be discredited—The New York Times marked his passing by euphemistically stating that scientists thought “he was too largely governed in his researches by a vivid imagination”—but the concept inspired such early science fiction classics as War of the Worlds and A Princess of Mars (adapted as the movie John Carter), the authors of which directly credit Lowell.
04. Skype Translator Loved to Insult People in China
We’ve talked before about why using translation software is a bad idea. But even by those standards, photojournalist Tom Carter’s experience using Skype Translator in China was disastrous.
Carter was a known journalist; prior to this incident, he’d gone backpacking through every province in China (over 56,000 kilometers!) to interview people and photograph them for his book China: Portrait of a People.
But project was a cross-lingual TV commercial. As related in The Global Times, anytime Carter would try to talk to people, Skype Translator would add in a few swearwords. (Some of these are listed in the article.) The team had to struggle through to get the footage they needed and then edit out the, uh, “issues.”
According to Carter, this bug was Great Firewall of China’s, which regulates the country’s internet.