On résiste à l’invasion des armées, on ne résiste pas à l’invasion des idées
This famous quote by Victor Hugo, who was one of my favorite authors when I was a teenager, is for some reason usually translated into English as “One cannot resist an idea whose time has come”. Although this mistranslation is now a part of American English in the same way as quotes from Shakespeare became a part of the language, even English speakers who don’t know any French can see what has been removed from the original quote and what has been added to it. “One can resist the invasion of armies, but one cannot resist the invasion of ideas” would be a much better translation. This translation immediately brings to mind many events from recent history or from our turbulent and cloudy present, such as the invasion of Iraq or the Occupy protest movements.
“One cannot resist an idea whose time has come” makes sense, but it is a mistranslation. I bet Victor Hugo would agree with me. If I tried to translate patents like this, I would lose a lot of clients because they need me to be as precise as possible in my translations. An irresistible idea whose time has come brings to mind sliced bread, iPod, Lady Gaga videos and talent and reality shows on teevee. I don’t think that this is what Victor Hugo had in mind.
There are many mistranslations in the English language and in other languages that most people are not aware of because they never heard the original sentence or expression in the original language since they don’t know that language. When a tree falls in a forest, it does make a sound even if nobody hears it. And a mistranslation is still a mistranslation even if nobody knows about it.
Some mistranslations are seemingly small and relatively unimportant. For example, I was once corrected in an online forum when I called Symphony No. 9 by Antonin Dvorak “From The New World” by a poster who helpfully pointed out that the correct name of this symphony in English is “The New World Symphony”. Actually, this may be what it is called in English, but it is not the correct name. It is a mistranslation because in Czech it is called “Z nového svĕta”, which means “From The New World”. I am just speculating here, but I think that Dvorak (or do I dare to write it Dvořák?) named it like this because the music was expressing his random impressions from the New World.
I think that the English mistranslation, I mean the official name of it, gives it an authorative, almost authoritarian meaning. There was nothing authoritarian about Dvořák who was the son of a butcher from a little town near Prague, not unlike the town of Tábor in the music video below. Interestingly enough, the Germans got the translation right (Aus der neuen Welt), and so did the Japanese (新世界よりShin Sekai Yori) and probably also translators into many other languages. The Japanese Wikipedia entry on this subject ignores the official English mistranslation and has the correct English title, see here.
The best known collection of mistranslations must be of course the Bible. There are still a few biblical scholars on this planet, but my guess would be that none of them really knows what the original text meant in the original languages simply because they are not fluent enough in those languages. How can one possibly understand linguistic and cultural references that go back more than two thousand years? I don’t think it’s possible. Moses spoke Hebrew, Jesus spoke Aramaic, and the New Testament was written in Greek. There was a lot translating and probably mistranslating going on already when the New Testament was written between 50 and 100 AD. For all I know, the golden rule that says “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” is a mistranslation too, although I sincerely hope that it does not mean “Take the money and run”, which seems to be the golden rule of all modern religions now, as the former translation describes one principle that I can identify with.
The Bible was then translated by St. Jerome from Hebrew and Greek into Latin around the year 400 AD. Incidentally, nobody seems to remember that St. Jerome, the patron saint of translators and librarians, was translating into his non-native language. His native language was Illyrian and he only learned Latin after he moved as a young man to Rome. Why is this little factoid never mentioned in the passionate native v. non-native discussions of translators? While St. Jerome was possibly the last really knowledgeable biblical scholar, further translations into national languages probably introduced new meanings and removed some parts of the original meaning of the text.
Please don’t tell anybody, but sometime I use mistranslations or what would be pretty close to a mistranslation in my own translations. The Japanese patents that I translate for my clients are provided with English summaries which were written by native Japanese speakers. Some of them are very good, but some are not so good. The problem is, when patent lawyers are discussing certain aspects of very specialized technology based on these English summaries, they would sometime ask me why did I change a certain English term that they have in their summary to something else.
If I have to explain myself in these cases, this not only takes time, but it may also introduce an element of confusion into discussions in English among lawyers who probably don’t know any Japanese. And they have already plenty of other things to discuss.
Which is why I try not to change anything in the English terminology that is used in these abstracts and use the words in my translation, unless it is a clear case of mistranslation, much worse that the examples of mistranslations mentioned in this post.