Five Misconceptions Caused by Mistranslations

Many sites list hundreds of amusing, sometimes utterly nonsensical mistranslations found all over the world, probably done by machines or translators with little care for context or quality. These mistranslations appear in restaurants and menus (“Scallop singed in the cognac and its fall of leeks”, “Sausage in the father-in-law”), hotels (“The lift is being fixed for the next day. During that time we regret that you will be unbearable.”, “Please leave your values at the front desk.”), road signs (“Beware of missing foot”, “To take notice of the safe, the slippery are very crafty”), on product packaging and advertisement flyers (“Amazing visual convulsion”, “Prevents the washings to distort, ties a knot.”, “Take one of our horse-driven city tours. We guarantee no miscarriages.”)

In other cases, the consequences of translation errors are more dramatic.

In 1980, a confusion between “intoxicado” (“poisoned”) and “intoxicated” led doctors to believe that 18-year-old Willie Ramirez, admitted to a Florida hospital in a comatose state, was suffering from intentional drug overdose, while he was actually suffering from an intracerebellar haemorrhage. The inadequate treatment that he received after the misdiagnosis left him quadriplegic, and the law suit that took place later resulted in a settlement of $71 million.

Politically, the mistranslation of Japanese Prime Minister Kantaro Suzuki’s response to the Potsdam Declaration of 1945 may well have been one of the reasons that pushed the United States to drop the atom bomb on Hiroshima – only 10 days after Suzuki’s comment. Suzuki used the word “mokusatsu”, which can in fact be interpreted as “no comment”… or as “treating with silent contempt.”

Some mistranslations, however, have simply been accepted and made their way into the collective subconscious and everyday speech. Even after better translations were made, these myths and sayings are still deeply rooted in cultural representations. Here are 5 of them, some of which I wasn’t aware of until I did some research for this article.

 1- The Forbidden Fruit

One of the oldest examples of such mistranslations comes from the Bible itself. Religious texts, which are several centuries old and have undergone countless translations, are a source for many translation errors. The common belief that the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden was an apple originates from an early mistranslation of the text which used the word “mălum”, meaning both “apple” and “evil.” The original text only mentioned “fruit” and a “tree”, but there are no traces of apples. Despite that, common depictions of this scene often show an apple tree, and the fruit was also adopted as the common name given to the laryngeal prominence: the Adam’s apple.


2- The Tongue Map

There is a common misconception that specific areas of the tongue are designed to recognise specific tastes: sweet on the tip of the tongue, sour and salt on the sides and bitter in the back. In fact, all taste buds can recognise all tastes, with variations in sensitivity to some flavours. The myth of the tongue map originates from a translation by Edwin Boring of a German paper, Zur Psychophysik des Geschmackssinnes, written in 1901 by David Hänig. The paper originally shows different detection levels across the tongue, but was misinterpreted as differences in sensitivity to basic tastes.


3- Life on Mars

An error in the translation of an 1877 text by Giovanni Schiaparelli, an Italian astronomer, led to fanciful hypotheses about the “long-vanished Martian civilisation.” In 1895, astronomer Percival Lowell, having read Schiaparelli’s works, even went as far as speculating that Martians were living in a civilised, utopian society, capable of building complex systems of irrigation “canals.” The problem is the Schiaparelli never wrote about these canals: he wrote about canali, “channels”, which simply refer to the network of linear structures that he observed on the soil of the red planet. Life on Mars? Maybe not yet.


4- An Idea Whose Time Has Come

What about the saying “One cannot resist an idea whose time has come” or its paraphrase, “Nothing is more powerful than an idea whose time has come.”? Mistranslation, simplification, misquote? In any case, the original quote from Victor Hugo, “On résiste à l’invasion des armées, on ne résiste pas à l’invasion des idées”, could be more accurately translated as “One can resist the invasion of armies, but one cannot resist the invasion of ideas.” Through translation, the quote acquired a new meaning, but because it was truncated in the English version, the original quote saw its meaning modified…


5- The Short Man Syndrome

Numbers can also be mistranslated, and it is an error in the translation of measurement units that created the image of Napoleon as a short man. He was actually 5’2” in French feet, that is, around 170 cm, or 5’7”. This is in fact slightly above average height for his time. The myth still persists and gave birth to what is known as the “Napoleon syndrome” or “Short Man syndrome”, a phrase used to describe a type of inferiority complex, generally in men of short stature. These men are generally characterised by an overly aggressive social behaviour, as if they were compensating for their lack of height. Research has shown that taller men actually tend to react more aggressively to provocation.


There would probably many more examples of translation errors that we are not aware of. Can they be corrected? Once they have become a part of culture itself, it seems very difficult to change them into brand new images, phrases and representations. Even after learning about these errors, I find it difficult to imagine Adam and Eve eating anything else but an apple, or to imagine Napoleon as anything else but a short, aggressive man with a bicorne hat.

In these mistranslations, is the translator a maker of culture, or a traitor to the original culture (and possibly to the target one as well, by introducing “false beliefs” into it)? It seems, in any case, that the role of the translator is often ambiguous, halfway between two cultures, tormented by the dilemma caused by the untranslatable, risking to lose elements from the source or to confuse readers belonging the target culture… and the misconceptions that exist about translation itself are certainly not helping.

 References and further reading: (Especially page 87)

Wikipedia also has an interesting list of common misconceptions, whether they be related to translation or not:


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