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Translation Mistakes That Made History


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Too often, amateurs are used to translating or interpreting something and when the communication is important, it can be a serious mistake. There are too many consequences that can result if a translation contains mistakes caused by someone who is not familiar enough with the language.

The most well-known “translation mistakes that caused big problems” is the Khruschev speech of 1968 that actually almost caused a new world war and nuclear destruction.

The speech by Russian President Nikita Khruschev came at a time when the “Capitalist” West and the “Communist” East were be-devilled by a Cold War that involved an escalating arms race of dangerous proportions as well as a war of words. The trouble was that too much could hang on a choice of words – and the words themselves had to be translated.

Khruschev, in his speech, appeared to warn the Americans that they would be around to see the Americans “buried”. At least, that is what the Americans understood the translation to mean. Fingers came close to pushing the nuclear button, as the assumption was that Khruschev was about to unleash Russian missiles targeted at the West. In fact, what he meant in Russian was that Russian-style communism would outlast American-style capitalism and the Russians would be still around to see the “death” of the American system, not Americans themselves.

It was reported many years later that the man who mistranslated the speech was sacked soon after Khruschev was misquoted!

Another famous translation mistake that continues to bedevil Australia’s near neighbor is the translation of the Treaty of Waitangi made between the British Crown and representatives of the Maori chiefs in 1840 in what is now New Zealand. The Maori translation indicated that Maori retained ownership of the seabed and foreshore, while the English translation indicated that this became the property of the Crown. The translation mistake eventually resurfaced in 2005, resulting in the Clark Labour Government’s electoral defeat and a replacement by a Maori / National Party coalition.

Translation mistakes may not affect a nation or the world, but can still hurt an individual. In the 1980s, a man was admitted to a hospital in Florida in a coma. He and his family could not speak English – only Spanish, but the hospital had a translator who listened to the account the family gave of the ill man. They said he was ‘intoxicado’, which in Spanish means ‘poisoned’. The translator thought he was drunk, so he was left to sober up! In fact, he was neither drunk nor poisoned but had a brain hemorrhage. The lack of medical attention resulted in the man becoming a quadriplegic and the hospital was eventually successfully sued for a sum of over $70 million. They no doubt hired a professional English Spanish translator soon afterward!