How Mistranslations Change The World

We always used to think about myths as something given for granted and we don't usually ask ourselves how they originated.

Do they originate from an ancient common thought? Or were they the fruit of a misinterpretation/mistranslation?

The correct answer is both but on this blog I will give some examples of translation errors, pointing out how documents should have been interpreted and how they are known today.

  • “VERSO POLLICE” (in Latin)


We all know from books and films that in ancient Rome during the battles in the Arena, the Emperor used to decide the life or death of the defeated one by a specific movement of his hand.  Thumbs up meant that the warrior fought bravely and he deserved life, thumbs down meant death.

Are there any specific parts of the translated documents in which it is told that the thumb had a precise position? Not really. Indeed, in some verses of the “Satire” of the Latin poet Decimo Giunio Giovenale there’s written “verso pollice” (in English “reversed thumb”) and there aren’t any parts in which there could be intended the “up” or “down” position.

It’s difficult to say which the right interpretation is because there are many of them. For example, one is that the thumb was probably turned in the direction of the condemned gladiator and the other fingers were turned toward the ground that meant that he had to die and go to the underworld.

Another interpretation (and maybe the right one), indicated death with the thumb in a vertical or horizontal position, using it as if it was a unsheathed sword, and life with the thumb hidden by the other fingers inside the fist, which meant leave your sword in the scabbard.



The misinterpretation caused the spread of the wrong meaning of this gesture, also because of Jean-Léon Gérôme who, in his painting “Pollice Verso” (see F1.), as a sign of condemnation against the inglorious gladiator, drew theVestals with the thumbs down. This painting also inspired Ridley Scott’s film “The Gladiator”; the director decided to maintain this symbology in order not to confuse his public (indeed, the “thumb up” sign, over the years became widespread and used to describe the safe end of contracts during the Middle Age in England and as a gesture made by pilots during the World War before the take off).





On the 14th of February, 1944, the Abbey suffered a major attack from the American armed forces, during World War 2.

During these years of war, it was very common that under the bombs, every type of building like Abbeys, schools, and houses were subjected to attacks. And so, why is this episode much more singular than others?

The answer is because the Americans made a mistake with the interpretation of a word during the translation of a conversation. But before explaining that, it’s better to say which was the deal between the Abbey and the Allies; the Vatican, and so the Abbey, guaranteed neutrality to them but, as the American had some doubts on their loyalty, they decided to trace some conversations and one of them was the reason why they have been bombed:

“Ist Abt noch im Kloester?” ”Ja in Kloester mit Monchen

In English the translation would be:

“Is the abbot in the monastery?” “Yes in the monastery with the monks”.

But a too suspicious official translated the German word “abt” as an abbreviation of “abteilung” i.e. battalion in English. This error determined the bombing and the death of more than 250 innocent people.


Abbot Gregorio Diamare was inside the building. He survived and saved the archives and the major and more important documents of the destroyed Abbey. He also swore that inside Montecassino there were no German soldiers, but after everything that happened, it was no longer important.

The Abbey was rebuilt between 1948 and 1956.




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