Last year, I wrote a post that showcased the top historically legendary translation mistakes. While the consequences may or may not have been dire for each (in some cases, actually quite humorous), history took an unforeseeable detour all thanks to a bit of mistranslation.
While there is no telling how many times mistranslation or flawed communication is to blame for misunderstandings throughout history, my guess the number is a lot. Oftentimes, we don’t catch them because the news doesn’t report the follow up, we ignore it as a collective conscious, or simply due to the passing of time and tradition we accept the ‘mistake’ as historical fact.
For this list, I’m including 5 more historically legendary translation blunders that aren’t necessarily political in nature, but have affected massive amounts of people.
5. Mistranslated Markets
A panic in the world’s foreign exchange market led the U.S. dollar to plunge in value after a poor English translation of an article by Guan Xiangdong of the China News Service zoomed around the internet. The original article was a casual, speculative overview of some financial reports, but the English translation sounded much more authoritative and concrete.
4. Mistranslated Moses
St. Jerome, the patron saint of translators, studied Hebrew so he could translate the Old Testament into Latin from the original, instead of from the third century Greek version that everyone else had used. The resulting Latin version, which became the basis for hundreds of subsequent translations, contained a famous mistake. When Moses comes down from Mount Sinai his head has “radiance” or, in Hebrew, “karan.” But Hebrew is written without the vowels, and St. Jerome had read “karan” as “keren,” or “horned.” From this error came centuries of paintings and sculptures of Moses with horns and the odd offensive stereotype of the horned Jew.
3. What Happened With Waitangi?
In 1840, the British government made a deal with the Maori chiefs in New Zealand. The Maori wanted protection from marauding convicts, sailors, and traders running roughshod through their villages, and the British wanted to expand their colonial holdings. The Treaty of Waitangi was drawn up and both sides signed it. But they were signing different documents. In the English version, the Maori were to “cede to Her Majesty the Queen of England absolutely and without reservation all the rights and powers of Sovereignty.” In the Maori translation, composed by a British missionary, they were not to give up sovereignty, but governance. They thought they were getting a legal system, but keeping their right to rule themselves. That’s not how it turned out, and generations later the issues around the meaning of this treaty are still being worked out.
2. Valentine’s Day Mix Up
In the 50s, when chocolate companies began encouraging people to celebrate Valentine’s Day in Japan, a mistranslation from one company gave people the idea that it was customary for women to give chocolate to men on the holiday. And that’s what they do to this day. On February 14, the women of Japan shower their men with chocolate hearts and truffles, and on March 14 the men return the favor. An all around win for the chocolate companies!
1. Street Fighter Slip-Up.
I ranked this one number 1 because it affected me personally along with all of my friends back in the day. In the Japanese video game Street Fighter II, a character says, “if you cannot overcome the Rising Dragon Punch, you cannot win!” When this was translated from Japanese into English, the characters for “rising dragon” were interpreted as “Sheng Long.” The same characters can have different readings in Japanese, and the translator, working on a list of phrases and unaware of the context, thought a new person was being introduced to the game. Gamers went crazy trying to figure out who this Sheng Long was and how they could defeat him. In 1992, as an April Fools Day joke, Electronic Gaming Monthly published elaborate and difficult to execute instructions for how to find Sheng Long. It wasn’t revealed as a hoax until that December, after countless hours had no doubt been wasted.