What really gets lost in translation? If you guessed money, you’d be right! As the story goes, when Coca-Cola tried to market its deliciousness to China, it mistakenly printed up thousands of signs with verbiage that sounded like Coca-Cola in Chinese, but in reality meant “bite the wax tadpole.”
Okay, that story isn’t entirely true, as Snopes.org reports. But it’s because such errors can cost a billion-dollar company like Coca-Cola more than money — think lost credibility and failed diplomacy — that vigilance in translation accuracy matters.
As the Korean rapper Psy of Gangnam Style fame recently experienced, poor translation can equal political scandal for a worldwide audience.
“Kill Yankees” is Tough to Translate
CNN’s problematic translation of a recent cover song maligned rapper Psy in many parts of the world for supposedly anti-American lyrics, which may have actually been anti-torture lyrics, according to the Washington Post. This report provides about half a dozen translations of what the Korean lyrics might really have meant and how they could otherwise have been translated into English. Although the performer was fortunate to shake President Barak Obama’s hand, it’s a little sketchy whether he’ll be cashing in on that fickle Yankee music market if American audiences hold any one of those possible translations to heart.
Mistranslations of Biblical Proportions
Bad translations have a long history. In fact, some Bible scholars trace poor translation to the time of Moses when God’s Tenth Commandment “do not take” somehow got translated into “do not covet,” according to an article in the Huffington Post.
Language experts around the world meet at great length and expense to debate single words in translations of ancient texts like The Dead Sea Scrolls, The Koran, and certainly various translations of the Bible. Errors in translation can create soul-wrenching affairs for people of faith throughout the world and, unfortunately, mistranslations abound.
Loss of Credibility
Linguists can easily chide — don’t use machine translations or try to cut corners by using student translators if you want to be taken seriously. For those of us who just want to drop a few bon mots at a holiday party, these online translations work fine and chances are, there isn’t much riding on the translation if it’s a gaff.
However, when a U.S. president goes with a shoddy translator to address another nation, the consequences of mistranslation include lost credibility and even blatant insult to an entire people. President Carter’s 1977 address to the Polish people began with giggles over the language screw-ups but ended with real shock for the missed chance to communicate effectively. As Time listed among its “Top 10 Embarrassing Diplomatic Moments,” what was communicated to the Poles was that Carter was “abandoning” America instead of temporarily leaving it, and that he desired the Poles “private parts.” Oy.
Government translation gaffs don’t always end in laughs, however. Sometimes mistranslations cause an escalation of political tension. A 2006 CNN World Report reported that President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was mistranslated as saying “Iran has the right to build nuclear weapons” when he actually stated “Iran has the right to nuclear energy.” A similar situation occurred during the Cold War when Soviet leader Khrushchev was mistranslated; Americans were told he said “we will bury you” instead of the commonly used Russian phrase of “we will outlast you.”
Lessons from the Peacemakers
Then, how do you get a trustworthy transation? Well, for a start, selection criteria matter! Businesses, governments, and news agencies are all learning that to save face and potentially thousands in revenue, you have to employ top-notch professionals. That’s true whether for the localization of technical documentation or for simultaneous interpretation in the political arena.
Indeed, look at the example of the United Nations. Its interpreters continue to be celebrated for setting the standard in translation today, according to Radio Free Europe.
To get a good translation, you’ve got to get the best translator for the job — which, if this whole mix-up with Psy is any indicator, is no small task. Heck, because you already know that people who speak the same language have trouble understanding each other, you can readily see how tough it is for those who speak languages that seem worlds apart!
We’re happy to share our tips, of course. Remember: Don’t let a bad translation say the wrong things about you!