Of translation errors man is made (although that’s not true if you have a good professional translator). But it is worth remembering what was done years, or even centuries, ago. I am sure that you know of some translation errors that have defined our lives and our culture, even if you are not consciously aware of them. Today we thought it would be good to find out more about them, so here goes.

Staying silent…

One of the worst translation errors of all time took place during the World War. Specifically, in July 1945. After the Potsdam conference the allies demanded that the Japanese Empire surrender. Before the Japanese government could decide, the Prime Minister Kantaro Suzuki answered the journalists with a simple mokusatsu, which simply means “no comment”. However, the Japanese chose their words badly, as it can also mean “we ignore with contempt”, which is how it was translated by many of the American agencies. Only ten days later, the first atomic bomb, Little Boy, exploded over Hiroshima.

A horned Moses?

Have you ever seen a picture of Moses with two horns on his head? I’m sure you have. The error is the result of a poor translation. It comes from the moment when Moses comes down from Mount Sinai. According to the original version, Moses’ head was “radiant”, but in Hebrew the vowels are not written, which is why St. Jerome read it as keren instead of karen. Since this means “horns”, suddenly two horns appeared on the head of the one chosen to free the Jewish people and they can still be seen in many later depictions.

Where does the term “fiscal paradise” come from?

The term fiscal paradise comes from the translation of the English expression “tax haven”, which means “tax refuge”. The French people who started to use this expression didn’t have much idea about English and confused “haven” with “heaven”, which of course is much more paradisiacal. And in Spain, of course, we followed their example and decided to talk about “fiscal paradises” (paraísos fiscales).

“Echar de menos” (we miss you) from Portugal

If we think about the literal meaning of the Spanish expression “echar de menos”, which means to miss someone, it appears that we are keen to move someone away from us. However, it actually means the exact opposite, that you can’t bear that person being away from you for long. In this case, the translation mistake made in this expression comes from our Portuguese neighbours. In Portugal, they say “achar de menos” where “achar” has the implicit meaning of feeling you are missing something. However, since “achar” sounds like “echar”, the expression has stayed like that. It doesn’t seem to make much sense but I guess if people like it, what harm can it do!

The icy Cape of Ovens

If you have ever been to Cape Horn you will know that it is anything but hot there. So, why in Spanish is it referred to as “Cabo de Hornos”, which literally translated means “Cape of Ovens”? Well, it was basically a translation mistake. It was down to laziness in the translation more than anything else. “Horn” comes from English and does not refer to the horns of an animal, but to a little town nearby. Some clever person wanted to translate it into Spanish but were clearly feeling vague and given the similarity of the words, decided on the translation “Cabo de Hornos”, Cape of Ovens!

The similarity between bridges and witches

Have you ever been to the Belgian city of Bruges? It is called Brujas in Spanish which also means witches. It has lots of bridges, charming little houses, but obviously no witches! This is of course another translation mistake.  The name of the town in the local language, Brugge, obviously doesn’t mean witches, it is meant to refer to bridges. This translation mistake could be due to the similarity of the spelling “brugge” and “brujas”. But of course, it is still with us today. And a translation mistake is still a mistake.

Professional translators to avoid mistakes

These are just two of the many translation errors that have marked our lives and culture. The work of translators is so crucial that it is vital to choose the best translation agency for all your assignments. Given these translation errors, it is clear that the job can’t be done by just anyone.

Related links

How to detect an automatic translation

The key qualities of a good translator


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