Posted by: patenttranslator | November 9, 2011

Mistranslations That We Are Not Aware Of Are Still Mistranslations


On résiste à l’invasion des armées, on ne résiste pas à l’invasion des idées

Victor Hugo

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.



  1. […] Lower Quality Translation Lesson 14: Time planning – the ultimate answer to coping with workload Mistranslations That We Are Not Aware Of Are Still Mistranslations Why you shouldn’t choose a factory translation (“cloud translation”) The Ultimate […]


  2. I have to disagree with you on the Bible being a mistranslation. Given the time and effort that went into copying the manuscripts, the cross-cheking that goes into all modern English translations, the extensive use of group and team translation and the sheer length and depth of scholarship on the languages concerned, I doubt it counts. Best to stick to what you know best.


  3. Duly noted.


  4. Sorry if I came off too harsh. There was no excuse for that and I apologise unreservedly.


    • No need to apologize.

      You made your point forcefully, which is perfectly acceptable in conversation among grownups, especially since I tend to be provocative in my posts sometime.

      I think that no amount of scholarship can create a bridge that will prevent the likelihood of mistranslation in cases like this, considering that the original texts are thousands of years old and that they have been translated and edited by people who might have a certain agenda, but that’s just my personal opinion.


  5. Interesting point and to some extent, I would have to agree but then, no amount of scholarship can create a bridge that will prevent the likelihood of mistranslation in any case of linguistic transfer. After all, we often struggle enough to make ourselves understood in the same language, never mind across more than 1.

    On the other hand, I will admit that there is an issue in the translation of any sacred text. In most cases, these texts are written in languages that are not spoken naturally any more and obviously, they have more ideological significance than say, instructions for a flat-pack table.

    However, this very ideology can be useful in itself. You would be surprised at the care that sacred text translators go to when working as they know full well that every word choice will be examined, every comma will be analysed and every paragraph will be thought about. Imagine doing a job knowing that your translation will be examined not only by “users” who think they know what they are talking about but by hundreds of people with the same (or higher) level of expertise than you and who each have their own agendas and own strongly held views. I imagine it would serve to concentrate the mind a bit.

    We can see a similar, although by no means equal, situation with the translation of “classics.” Every translator of Homer or Tolstoy or Euripedes has to figure that their translation will be the subject of debate and discussion and that someone, somewhere will find a nit to pick.

    Hence why most Bible translations are now done in teams. While one coudl say that it is not a guarantee of accuracy, the level of checking and double-checking that this involves does mean that a lot of seemingly minor “errors” will be found and corrected. It also tends to reduce the likelihood that the translation will have massive authorial biases, especially when, like the publishers of two of today’s most read versions, the NIV and NLT, you go as far as to have experts from a wide range of viewpoints on your team.

    So, is it possible that there are mistranslations in the Bible? In any one of the current versions, definitely yes. Does this make the Bible itself a mistranslation? Not really, unless you want to call all translations mistranslations and start using good old deconstructionist logic.


  6. This is slightly off the topic, but I would just like to say that I used to have respect for religious people …. until I saw them cheering for the war in Iraq. “People of faith” were actually the loudest war mongers in this country.

    After all, we were only going to kill a bunch of brown people who were not Christians.

    That’s when I decided that organized religion is not for me.

    Take care.


    • You can be assured that not all “religious” or “Christian” people are the same as those you saw.


  7. […] since I already wrote about commonly accepted mistranslations for example in this post, my post today will be about something else, namely about the relative cost of a real translation […]


  8. The Hebrew text of Exodus calls the sea which the Israelites had to cross on their way to Canaan “Yam Suf” which means “Sea of Reds” . Somehow, this has been identified with the Red Sea, but I am not aware tha reeds grow in a sea or along the shoreline.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: