Posted by: patenttranslator | March 21, 2012

What Do Robber Barons, Habsburgs and Prague Airport Have in Common?

What Do Robber Barons, Habsburgs and Prague Airport Have in Common?

As I was watching a documentary on German TV about Wall Street today, I was trying to compare the bits and pieces of the original English that I was able to hear over the German narration, which I always find very irritating.

Trying to follow two languages at the same time is like making love and watching a movie at the same time. I think that one should probably concentrate on one thing at a time in cases like that.

The problem is, the film makers usually don’t really translate the original text for the German narration, they summarize it, while neglecting to include really important parts in the translation, and sometime they mistranslate things, sometime because “the German ear does not hear” (American English sounds), and sometime because the German journalists are quite ignorant when it comes to American history, even fairly recent American history.

Here is a perfect example of how the confluence of the imperfect perception of American English sounds by the German ear with the somewhat surprising lack of knowledge of American history can result in a really silly mistranslation: When an American professor, I forgot his name and from which university he was (because I was trying to follow both languages), was comparing in the documentary the recent wave of rampant and so far unpunished criminality on Wall Street to American robber barons of the 1890s, the American robber barons were changed in the German translation to “Gummi Barone” (rubber barons).

The German ear apparently did not really register any difference between the pronunciation of “robber” and “rubber” in American English, and the journalists who put the documentary together had no idea who the American robber barons where and that they were not really manufacturing or trading rubber, which is what they probably thought.

After a chuckle or two, when I switched to “Questions pour un Champion” on TV5 Monde to work on my French, I heard the host, Julien Lepers, correct the spelling of the name of an Austrian dynasty, which was correctly guessed but incorrectly spelled by a participant in this popular game as “Aubsburgs”.

According to Julien Lepers, the correct spelling was Hasburgs. He forgot a “b” since it should “Habsburgs”, of course, but nobody corrected him. Somebody should tell him that he needs to remember to keep looking at his cards when he gives the answers.

Hasburgs, Habsburgs, same difference when you are a French TV game show host. You would think that the after what the French did to Marie Antoinette, they would remember how to spell the name Habsburgs. But apparently, they either don’t remember it or don’t really care, probably because it’s not a French word.

So, because I had a slow day, as the only translation that I committed that day was translating a Czech birth certificate to English for 60 dollars, prepaid through PayPal on my website, I started reading a Czech newspaper online.

According to the newspaper (, the wise men at the Prague castle decided to rename the Prague Airport and name the airport after the recently deceased former president Vaclav Havel.

It makes no sense to me to do that. I see the need to distinguish airports in New York or Paris for instance because both cities have several airports. So you name one Charles de Gaulle Airport, and the other one Orly Airport. Or here we have JFK and La Guardia in New York. Although they do the same thing here too sometime, of course, there is the Louis Armstrong Airport in New Orleans, for example, although I believe there is only one major airport in New Orleans.

But the problem with the renaming of the Prague airport was that because the wise men at the Prague castle don’t really speak much English, they sent out announcements in English that the Prague Airport would be now called Airport Vaclav Havel. They did not notice that thanks to what is called “fixed word order” in English, this would sort of mean that Vaclav Havel became an airport.

According to the newspaper, the change of the name to Airport Vaclav Havel, which is a direct translation of “Letiště Václava Havla” from Czech to English,  was first proposed by the Czech Ministry of Transport and then it was approved by the Czech government.

Fortunately, some Czech who has been living in London for the last 20 years caught the mistake and the airport will be probably called Vaclav Havel Airport according to the newspaper.

But it is of course still possible that it will be called Airport Vaclav Havel if the wise men at the Prague castle prefer their version.

So what do robber barons, Habsburgs and the Prague airport have in common?

Nothing, really, other than that they can be easily mistranslated or misspelled by people who are a little bit overconfident when it comes to their knowledge of foreign languages.

Which is why I felt an irresistible urge to write this post.


  1. Amazing article, Steve. Thanks!

    I am not sure if I agree with this paragraph, though:

    “The problem is, the film makers usually don’t really translate the original text for the German narration, they summarize it, while neglecting to include really important parts in the translation, and sometime they mistranslate things, sometime because “the German ear does not hear” (American English sounds), and sometime because the German journalists are quite ignorant when it comes to American history, even fairly recent American history.”

    First, I think the very essence of documentaries summarizing and editing interviews. Otherwise it would be too boring – real life is too boring. 🙂 It’s always a matter of choosing what will appear on the screen and heard by the audience. So there will always be a certain degree of content loss, even more so when the interviewee is speaking in another language. I wouldn’t fuss about that.

    And second, maybe you’re exaggerating when you say that “German journalists are quite ignorant when it comes to American history”. The level of journalism is Germany has become wildly varied in the past decade, and the more time you spend watching private-owned stations or even some daytime programs on state-owned stations, the more you realize that. What I do find generally irritating, though, is the pronunciation of American (or English, for that matter) names by German journalists and above all by German correspondents. But I must say that the speakers of the prime time news ‘Tagesschau’ are usually flawless in their pronunciation of English names. 🙂

    Anyway, your article is really great for client education, and I hope the message gets across.


  2. What I meant was that the journalists who translated “robber barons” as “Gummi Barone” were quite uneducated about American history. Otherwise they would have caught this stupid mistranslation, since there were no “rubber barons” in this country.

    To me it was surprising because I agree with you that German journalists are usually the real thing, and they usually also speak a foreign language or two, unlike their American counterparts.


  3. You could also look at it this way… translators immediately notice mistakes because we are used to looking at the fine points of a text instead of the big picture. 🙂


  4. Which is why we sometime can’t see the forest for the trees?:-)


  5. This is an example of, as we say in Spanish, “deformación profesional” (“professional bias”). I am no longer capable of watching films (audio mainly in English, with subtitling in Spanish) – or even reading books – without detecting these glitches. It is not a conscious decision, it’s my brain that does it of its own volition, as it were. I am sure that I am a most obnoxious character to invite to the movies…just cannot help myself. I tend to laugh at things that nobody finds funny, because my translator alter ego has just noticed a faux pas. Or turn to my companion to explain something because it has been mistranslated and it affects comprehension of the movie (and get duly sushed by the other blissfully unsuspecting viewers). I find that most times, there is on the part of translators of subtitles, an ignorance of the culture of the source, and so things like “rubber” for “robber” do happen. That’s what cheap rates get.
    Nice post, as always.


  6. Deformacion profesional? I like the sound of it. has a cartoon about precisely this kind of thing, how a translator and his girlfriend got thrown out of a cinema theater because he kept complaining to her about the horrible mistranslations in the subtitles.

    At the end of the cartoon, his girlfriend says:

    Mina: Note to myself – never take a translator to movies.


    • Yes, I had seen the cartoon. Felt totally identified with Mox! I have to remind myself to restrain my impulses in public…


  7. […] What Do Robber Barons, Habsburgs and Prague Airport Have in Common? ( […]


  8. Beware the Gummibäronen!


  9. Steve, I linked this post to a new article on my blog ( ), but, to tell the truth, I am not sure your statement is correct in this regard. Actually, there used to be “Rubber barons” at the time of the rubber boom and Henry Ford. You can google them up or try Wikipedia. But, since I didn’t see the documentary (and – as a Russian in Germany – would have probably registered no difference between “robber” and “rubber”either), I cannot judge.


    • Hi Valerij:

      Thanks for linking to my post.

      However, the film director definitely meant Robber Barons because Wall Street banksters are often being compared to them here, never to Rubber Barons.

      The difference between the “u” and “o” sound is in this case almost imperceptible, you can mostly hear it in the length of the vowel because “o” is slightly longer then “u” in this case (by about 30%).

      I like your ramblings, I took the liberty of linking to your blog.

      I wonder whether you solve a mystery for me. Is the saying“бесплатный сыр бывает только в мышеловке” originally Russian, or is it originally German “Kostenlosen Käse gibt´s nur in der Mausfalle”?

      Best regards,

      Steve Vitek


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