You’re Saying it Wrong: Six Mistranslations that Made History
Translation is where things are lost and found, where minds can touch or drift further apart. If it is crafted skilfully, a translation can enrich the mind; if it isn’t, it can be a source of amusement or serious misunderstanding. Below we’ve compiled a list of six instances in which mistranslations had historically significant consequences.
1. Not Quite a God
Interesting things can happen when translation involves not two, but three parties. Take the case of Hernán Cortés (1485–1547), a Spanish conquistador infamous for conquering the lands ruled by the Aztecs. On one occasion, he sought to form an alliance with the local Totonac people living in the Aztec province of Cempoala, and tried to convince them to imprison an Aztec tribute collector. There was one issue: Cortés couldn’t find a Spanish-Totonac translator, and therefore had to make do with a Spanish priest that could speak Yucatec Mayan, and a woman named Malintzin who could speak Mayan and Nahuatl. The latter wasn’t even the native language of the Totonacs, but it appears to have been close enough to facilitate the conversation. The Totonacs, who well understood that imprisonment of the tribute collector would be a de facto declaration of war on the Aztecs, reportedly told Cortés that no human would dare to do such a thing and that he must therefore be a teule. This term was translated by the Spaniards as “god”, but in fact that word didn’t exist in any indigenous language. The closest word to it in Nahuatl is teotl, which can mean “deity” or “spirit”, but has a variety of other meanings depending on the context. What really was said in this game of Chinese whispers will probably be lost in time, but the confusion persists: Cortés and his men, assuming the locals saw them as gods, went around acting the part, and the myth of Cortés’s divinity survives to this day. (Restall 2004)
2. How Moses Got His Horns
Ironically, the patron saint of translators has earned his own spot on the list of historical mistranslations. In 382 AD, Pope Damasus I commissioned his protégé Jerome to translate the Old and New Testaments from Greek and Hebrew into Latin. The result of this endeavour, known as the Vulgate, became the official Latin Bible in the Catholic Church and was used for centuries. It’s had a major influence on the way Christians experience and visualise their faith. While Jerome’s translation is extremely valuable to modern critics, careful readings have identified a few issues. Most notably, when Moses returns with the Ten Commandments, Jerome used the Latin cornuta for the Hebrew karan, which can be translated as “shining” or “radiant”. Jerome may have had his reasons, but his Latin translation has certainly confused people, for cornuta means “horned”. Although this description seems out of place, it hasn’t been questioned by its readers for centuries; as a result, images and statues of a horned Moses abound in medieval and Renaissance art. (Holloway, 2009; Medjuck, 1998)
3. Honest Mistake or Devious Trick?
In 1840, the Treaty of Waitangi was signed by the British authorities, who wanted to expand their colonial territory, and the Maori chiefs in New Zealand, who wanted protection from marauding foreigners. What they did not know was that they were actually signing two different documents. In the English version of the treaty, 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 they were not to give up sovereignty, but only governance, which meant that they would get a legal system while maintaining the right to rule themselves. There is no way of knowing whether the translator, a British missionary, intentionally misrepresented the English original, but for generations the two versions of the treaty continued to be a cause of conflict between the British and the Maoris. (Orange, 1997)
4. White Raisins in Paradise?
Sometimes, a mistranslation is recognised not because it’s true, but because people want it to be true. An example of this is the mentioning of houri (حُـوری) in the Qur’an. The term occurs several times and refers to the virgins that await faithful men in paradise. One theory, originating from modern author Christoph Luxenberg (pseudonym), is that houri was in fact a mistranslation of the Aramaic hur, which means “white raisin”. While Islamic scholars have identified this as a falsehood (first and foremost because they see Arabic, not Syro-Aramaic, as the original language of the Qur’an, but also because of strong contextual objections), and Luxenberg has been accused of having a Christian apologetic agenda, the myth has persisted. (Kroes, 2012)
5. When a Town Becomes a Country
Canada first received its name when it became a French colony in the sixteenth century, and a common theory holds that its origin actually lies in mistranslation. A widespread perception is that when the French landed on Canada’s shores and came into contact with its indigenous people, they misunderstood the Saint-Lawrence Iroquoian term Kanata as the existing proper name of the Iroquois people's entire territory, rather than the generic class noun for a town or village which it actually is. While it is unsure if the early French settlers were aware of the real meaning of Kanata, the story of its misinterpretation became so popular it is now an integral part of Canadian folklore. (Rayburn, 2001)
6. All Europeans Are Portuguese
Sometimes, an apparent mistranslation is indicative of a larger misunderstanding. The journal of seventeenth-century Dutchman Hendrik Hamel, who had been shipwrecked in Joseon Korea and forcefully kept on the peninsula for thirteen years before successfully escaping, offered the West the first account of “the hermit kingdom” and holds valuable information about its isolated people. In one passage, Hamel explains the peculiar world map the Koreans maintained: they thought there were no more than twelve kingdoms, and the entire West consisted of Portugal (Nampancoeck), which was a country they were familiar with through the Portuguese tobacco the Japanese often traded with them. Hamel reports that when he and his men told the Koreans about a few countries besides Portugal, they were laughed at and told those were the names of cities and villages, as the Koreans’ maps did not extend past Thailand. Throughout their entire stay in Korea, the Dutchmen were therefore referred to as Portuguese – not because of mistranslation, but because of a flawed understanding of the world. (Hamel, 1668/1920)
When two cultures meet, language is the first bridge that needs to be crossed. Both translation and mistranslation have played a vital role in the history of humanity. The spread of religions, the colonisation of peoples, the movement of knowledge; everything begins and ends with language, meaning that to translate is to truly be alive in this world. Even with the inevitable risk of getting it wrong, translation is a task worth undertaking, for it allows us an attempt at understanding what’s beyond the borders we call our own.
Do you have a favourite story about a famous mistranslation? Please share it in the comments below!
Hamel, H. (1668), editor Hoetink, B. (1920) Verhaal van het Vergaan van het Jacht de Sperwer. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff
Holloway, S. (7 September, 2009). Horny Jew: What’s the deal with Michelangelo’s Moses? In Galus Australis, http://galusaustralis.com/
Kroes, R. (19 February, 2012). Missionary, dilettante or visionary? A review of Ch. Luxenberg, Die Syro-Aramäische Lesart des Qur’an. Retrieved from www.livius.org
Medjuck, B.E. (1998). Exodus 34:29-35: Moses’ “Horns” in Early Bible Translations and Interpretations. (Master’s thesis). Retrieved from http://www.collectionscanada.gc.ca/
Rayburn, A. (2001). Naming Canada: Stories about Canadian Place Names. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
Restall, M. (2004). Seven Myths of the Spanish Conquest. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
About the author: Anna Bruins is one of our interns working on the Think In Translation project. She was born and raised in the Netherlands, where she – after an interval in Seoul for her studies – graduated from Tilburg University with a Liberal Arts & Sciences degree in 2017. She is currently doing a postgraduate degree in Religion, Literature and Culture at the University of Glasgow. Her love of language was partially instilled into her by her education in a variety of languages, although her current fascination for non-Latin scripts is mostly due to her grapheme-colour synaesthesia. She has an existential fear of cracking joints and the colour spring green.