6 Mistranslations That Changed The World
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.
And as much as that sucked, it's nothing compared to these doozies.
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.
Another common misinterpretation: "Mars is covered with cannoli."
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.
"Hmm ... that's either the Vatican or a piece of sweet corn."
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.
"Come on a-guys, did none of you actually a-look at Mars?" -- Giovanni Schiaparelli
By all accounts, Schiaparelli was understandably pissed at the way everyone kept connecting his observations with Lowell's hogwash, but by the time the truth actually got out, it was too late. Lowell's wildass imagination spurred the science fiction fantasies of everyone from H.G. Wells, whose The War of the Worlds also featured the last-ditch efforts of a dying Martian race, to Edgar Rice Burroughs, whose novel A Princess of Mars is also about -- guess what? A dying civilization on the planet Mars.
Venusians, hypothetical inhabitants of our closest neighbor on the sun-side, never witnessed the same popularity. By the time the 20th century got going, Martians on Mars were a done deal, and it was all because of one itty-bitty "i."
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."
And then after that we can go make snow angels!
Which, when coupled with the fact that the Soviets had just tested a successful H-bomb, made it sound remarkably like Khrushchev was challenging us to a game of nuclear chicken. 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. And remember, this guy wasn't some Moammar Gadhafi or Third World despot talking out of his ass. Not only was Soviet Russia 100 percent capable of blowing the United States to kingdom come, but now Khrushchev sounded like he was itching to pull the nuclear trigger.
There was only one problem: Nikita Khrushchev didn't actually say those words.
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." It was just the usual "communism is better than capitalism" posturing that went on all the time in the Cold War, but thanks to misinterpretations like the one in a Time article, Americans thought Khrushchev was threatening to literally bury us in the rubble of a nuclear attack. And he didn't clarify his statement for three whole years. While the U.S. operated under the assumption that Khrushchev was chomping at the bit to kill us, we watched as the U.S.S.R. launched both Sputnik and the world's first intercontinental ballistic missile, and we consequently went space missile crazy ourselves. Would we have landed on the moon if it hadn't been for our misunderstanding of Khrushchev's bluster? We'll never know.
President Carter Creeps Out a Nation
Twenty years after Khrushchev's outburst, the Cold War was still raging and America was due for her own linguistic gaffe. Fortunately, President Jimmy Carter was just the man for the job. In 1973, Carter traveled to Poland to hold the United States' first-ever news conference in a communist country, one where he would be fielding questions from actual Communists. So the stakes of this little visit were mega-huge. Imagine President Barack Obama holding a news conference in Taliban country. Now imagine that the night before the huge news conference, Obama says he wants to have sex with the Taliban. Congratulations -- you just imagined Jimmy Carter's Poland visit.
"I appreciate the comment, but you will die for it"
Carter was speaking through a $150-a-day freelance translator who barely spoke Polish. The guy's mistakes started early on and never let up: When Carter opened with "I left the United States this morning," it got translated to, "I left the United States, never to return." When he said, "I have come to learn your opinions and understand your desires for the future," it was translated into, "I desire the Poles carnally." If the people of Poland weren't creeped out enough by Carter's apparently insatiable lust for some Polish sausage, the interpreter made things even more confusing by using archaic words and Russian syntax, and while he was at it, he made fun of the Polish constitution, too. Carter couldn't catch a break with this guy.
"The American president also asks if all of your country's walls are painted with the color of feces."
So that guy was fired, and a new translator was hired for a state banquet. Carter delivered the first line of his speech, paused for the translator ... and heard nothing. Carter said the next line, paused again, and again there was silence. Apparently Translator No. 2 was having the opposite problem -- he couldn't understand Carter's English -- and so he decided silence was the best option, forcing the Polish leader's own translator to step in and pick up the slack. When Carter finally left the country, he was the butt of a thousand Polish jokes.
Question: How many Jimmy Carters does it take to screw in a light bulb?
Answer: Two -- one to abandon it and one to know it carnally.
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.
Aw, isn't that so sweet?
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.
Yep, everything's 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.
America doesn't sweat the details.
It's worth noting that if Suzuki had just fully explained himself and said, "Let me get back with you on that," none of this would have happened. But whether it's a politician's poor word choice or a translator's failure to read down to the alternate definitions of a word, the only translation the Americans got was, "Japan has just issued the most ill-advised 'Bring it on' ever made."
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.
"You're sure he said his lungs are filled with penises?"
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.
"Your what are on fire? I'm sorry sir I don't know what pantalones are."
That same study tested the translation programs used by pharmacies and found that over half of the prescriptions produced contained serious errors. And these errors pop up on real prescriptions all the time: "By mouth" is changed to "by little," "two times" is changed to "two kiss," and in one spectacularly disquieting case, the instructions for blood pressure medicine caused a man to take it 11 times a day instead of once because "once" in Spanish is "11."
"Just take 416 of these and call me in 72 years."
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.
The lesson here? If you speak only Spanish, for the love of God don't get sick.
GAN4 Fucks Up China
You know Chinglish? The terribly-translated-from-Chinese-to-English signs that the Internet loves? Well, a good half of them can trace their origins to one character, GAN4:
To explain what went wrong here, we're going to have to back up and give you a quick crash course in Mandarin. As you may know, Mandarin Chinese is a ridiculously complicated language, with different characters for each and every word in the traditional written form. It also has a whole lot of homophones -- words that sound similar but have different meanings. There's even a poem called "Lion-Eating Poet" made up of nothing but 92 variations on the syllable "shi." But since this is all absurdly hard to learn, back in the mid-20th century an alternative called Pinyin was developed that simplified the written form by clumping together similar-sounding words into the same character.
You see? Simple!
So what does that have to do with GAN4? Well, as you may have guessed, GAN4 isn't pronounced "ganfor" but is rather one of several Mandarin words represented by the sound "gan," and in Pinyin, all the GANs correspond to a single character. Which wouldn't be such a big deal, except GAN1 means "dry" and is commonly used in grocery stores, while GAN4 means "fuck." You can guess how that plays out:
Plenty more can be found with a simple GIS search. The most plausible explanation here is that store owners are using a shitty translation program that automatically converts any GAN into "fuck," which seems like a pretty serious oversight to us -- it would be like if an English-to-Chinese converter constantly translated "runs" as the Chinese equivalent of "diarrhea," regardless of context.
Pick up our our book to discover other weird ways the world was changed.
For more bizarre things that changed the world, check out 5 Horrible Diseases That Changed The World (For the Better) and 5 Whores Who Changed The Course of History.
And stop by Linkstorm to see what happens when typos go wild.
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