Through the Lens of History: Historic, fateful or comical translation errors


La version française de cet article, qui s’intitule À travers le prisme de l’histoire : Erreurs de traduction historiques, fatidiques ou cocasses, figure dans l’outil Chroniques de langue.

Jean Delisle
(Language Update, Volume 9, Number 1, 2012, page 12)

Those who have practised the art of translation without first reflecting on the intellectual gymnastics required are unanimous in their recognition of the obstacles and pitfalls awaiting them at every twist and turn in the translation. Throughout history, accounts of the difficulty of this perilous activity abound. Here is just a small sample:Remark a “Translation is not as easy as the average person thinks it is.”Footnote 1 “Among the language arts, there is nothing harder than translating well.”Footnote 2 “It is harder to write others’ thoughts than one’s own.”Footnote 3 “Of all the books that one could write, I think the most difficult would be a translation.”Footnote 4 Its complexity is the very reason why translation occasionally gives rise to mistakes that have harmless, tragic or amusing consequences. Some of these inaccuracies become so firmly entrenched in the target language that they are impossible to root out.

Just looking at our two official languages, we can identify three kinds of translators: those who know both French and English very well; those who know French well, but not English; and those who know English well, but not French. Only those in the first group make good translators. They master their working languages and have an impressive way with words. Their translations are first-rate, as they make the same impression on readers as do the original texts. Any conscientious professional translator strives for this ideal. Amateur, slapdash or charlatan translators do not impose the same stringent requirements on themselves.

Capes and plains

Contact between languages, coupled with a lack of linguistic knowledge, can lead to interference. For example, Saint-Malo explorer Jacques Cartier called the cape on the Gaspé Peninsula between Percé and Grande-Rivière Cap-d’Espoir. Ironically, it has also been called Cap-Désespoir, as the English referred to it as Cape Despair. This phonetic-based mistranslation can be likened to the Gaspésians’ linguistic distortion of lighthouse into litousse (var. létousse). To each linguistic group its own imaginative translations and whimsical creations of place names and words!

Similarly, how many guardians of the French language in Quebec know that the popularly named Plains of Abraham—a historic site if ever there was one—conceal an anglicism? The toponym Plains of Abraham appeared for the first time on an English map in the early days of English rule. Translated back into French, it produced the calque plaines d’Abraham. Yet, during the French regime, the high ground above the plot of land belonging to Abraham Martin (1589–1664) was always referred to as the Hauteurs d’Abraham.Footnote 5 This was not without good reason, given that the heights on Quebec City’s promontory form a plateau, not a plain, an incorrect term in this context.Remark b Was it a bit of nose-thumbing by the Anglo-Saxon conquerors? Historical facetiousness?

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Plains of Abraham

The battle of the Plains of Abraham was over in approximately 15 minutes, but the battle waged by Francophones against anglicisms goes on. It would be futile, however, to try to eradicate the anglicism plaines d’Abraham from our linguistic landscape, given how deeply embedded it is in our language and history—one might even say, in our national consciousness. The following anecdote serves as ab absurdo confirmation. Upon hearing “the Plains of Abraham” in his earphones, a foreign interpreter unfamiliar with Canadian place names automatically translated it as les avions d’Abraham, which left those listening quite taken aback. It just goes to show that a perfect command of the languages in question is not all that’s required to produce good translations. Knowledge of the world is also required.

A disembowelled fly

“You translate not just words,” writer and translator Marie José Thériault reminds us, “but also a way of living and thinking.”Footnote 6 When American or English-Canadian writing is translated in France, even by very competent translators, some purely North American things can be erased. Thus, the 5 & 10 variety stores, aka five-and-dimes or dime stores, mentioned by F. Scott Fitzgerald in one of his short stories became in the hands of a translator from France “Prisunic,” a chain that did not even exist in North America. A Canadian translator would have probably rendered “5 & 10” as 5-10-15 in French, since that was what these stores were called at the time.

In a Margaret Atwood novel, a mouche éventrée (disembowelled fly) makes a strangely sudden appearance where a braguette ouverte (open fly) should be.Footnote 7 Since zippers exist on both sides of the Atlantic, the translator’s blunder could only be due to a lapse in concentration or a lack of sleep. This mistranslation is reminiscent of the notorious machine translation of “Time flies like an arrow”: Les mouches du temps aiment une flèche.

In Marilyn French’s novel The Women’s Room,Footnote 8 the passage “down at the Sunoco station there was a full-sized cardboard poster of a lady in a bathing suit” is rendered into French as “à la gare de Sonnoco [sic], une photo grandeur nature d’une dame en maillot de bain.” Here, the translator has turned a gas station into a train station and the franchise’s name into a place name. This example and the following one confirm that between the lines of any text lies an implicit part of the message. Consciously or subconsciously deciphering that part is essential to grasping the full meaning. Once again, knowledge of the world.…

Turning the word hémicycle into a synonym for the House of Commons, as was the case in the translation of an official document, betrays ignorance of the fact that the chamber where Canada’s elected representatives sit in session is in fact rectangular, unlike that of the French National Assembly, which is in the shape of a semicircle. It’s important not to mix up geometric shapes!

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House of Commons


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French National Assembly


The Rocket, a bonnet and a shirt

As for translations that fail to take into account the unique characteristics of a culture, the translation of Mordecai Richler’s novel Barney’s VersionFootnote 9 takes the prize. In Le monde de Barney, one strolls along Montréal’s St. Catherine Street and Urban Street, instead of rue Sainte Catherine and rue Saint Urbain, and Bishop Street, or rue Bishop, is strangely transformed into rue de l’évêque. The translator would have you believe that in Montréal kids are referred to as gosses (testicles!) and go to lycée, instead of école secondaire (high school), play in courettes (courtyards), not cours (backyards), and step over congères, instead of bancs de neige (snowbanks). Plus, the Montréal Canadiens are eliminated in six jeux, instead of six matchs [games]; they win the Stanley CupRemark c thanks to Maurice Richard, aka la Fusée, not Le Rocket; a referee gives Dickie Moore a carton rouge (red card used in soccer), not a penalty; and the narrator wants to attraper (physically catch), instead of ne pas rater (figuratively catch), the créneau horaire des news (news time slot), instead of bulletin de nouvelles (just “news” and without the anglicism), on CBC, instead of Radio-Canada, needlessly specifying that it’s a national network. Can someone be so unaware of the unique characteristics of Montréal, Quebec and Canada? Clearly the translator was unfamiliar with the monde de Barney. Although readable, the translation strips Richler’s writing of its North American character and turns it into foreign prose, which some might view as an act of cultural sabotage.Remark d

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Stanley Cup

Other, more harmless translation errors can be quite funny. For example, Abbé Prévost, translating an account of a voyage by William Towston, came across a sentence stating that the English navigator, having run out of full sails, used a bonnet, i.e. a small sail that attaches to a course (the lowest primary sail). Not well versed in nautical terms, the author of Manon Lescaut calqued “bonnet” into French without batting an eye. However, since bonnet means “hat” or more specifically “cap” in French, he essentially wrote that Towston was able to sail to the Isle of Wight by hanging his old cap on the mast.Footnote 10

While we’re on the topic of clothing, it’s worth noting that Pierre-Antoine de La Place, who after Voltaire was the first to translate Shakespeare into French, rendered the title of Colley Cibber’s comedy Love’s Last Shift (Le dernier expédient de l’amour) as La dernière chemise de l’amour (Love’s Last Shirt). Whether it cost him dearly, leaving him with nothing but the shirt on his back…may be lost to history.

Military blunders

Toward the end of World War II, the Germans encircled the town of Bastogne and demanded that the Americans defending the town surrender unconditionally. General McAuliffe issued his famous curt reply: “Nuts!” The German interpreter’s literal rendering of the expression (the German word for a fruit consisting of a hard or tough shell around an edible kernel) threw the Wehrmacht generals into a state of confusion.

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Atomic bomb over Hiroshima

On a more serious note, we have every reason to believe that the sad fate of Hiroshima was the result of a translation error. As noted by William Craig in his book The Fall of Japan,Footnote 11 one outcome of the Potsdam Conference held in July 1945 was the Allied ultimatum issued to the Prime Minister of Japan, demanding Japan’s unconditional surrender. In Tokyo, journalists urged Prime Minister Kantaro Suzuki to advise them of the official reaction. The Prime Minister replied that his government was refraining from any comment at that time. However, he used the word mokusatsu, which has multiple meanings. The Japanese news agencies and translators gave it the meaning of “to treat with silent contempt” or “to ignore,” so the Prime Minister was essentially quoted as saying, “We categorically reject your ultimatum.” Irritated by the arrogant tone of this reply, the Americans took it as a flat refusal. Ten days later, they dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima. This translation error cost the lives of 70,000 people.

Famous faux amis

Countless are the number of political or diplomatic incidents provoked by the English translation of the French verb demander [to ask], given its strong resemblance to the English verb “to demand,” insidiously suggesting equivalent meaning. Jean Lesage’s government fell victim to this during a federal-provincial conference in 1963, as have others before and since. The Anglophone media were offended by the Government of Quebec’s arrogant attitude. The source of many a misunderstanding, this mistranslation was inevitably followed by a hardening of English Canada’s tone with Quebec.

This mistake has a historic international precedent. Around 1830, Paris and Washington entered into heated talks over an indemnity, and President Jackson proposed extraordinary measures to Congress. A message sent to the White House by France began as follows: “Le gouvernement français demande…,” which a secretary translated as “The French Government demands….” The US President replied swiftly and forcefully that if the French government dared to “demand” anything whatsoever from the United States, it would obtain nothing. Luckily, calm was restored once the translation had been corrected.Footnote 12

Adam’s fig

We know that there were no apple trees in biblical lands. Why then is the forbidden fruit an apple? It’s due to a bad translation of the Latin word pomum, which means any fruit and not specifically the fruit of an apple tree (malum). The tree of knowledge would therefore not have been an apple tree, but likely a fig tree. So the fruit in the Book of Genesis that Eve is said to have given to Adam to eat and that reportedly got lodged in his throat was likely a fig.

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Adam and Eve

The Bible, an oft-translated text, abounds with such mistakes. Everyone knows the following passage from the Gospel: “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 19:24). If the image of a camel passing through the eye of a needle seems unusual, it may be because that’s not what the Greek text states. The person who translated this Gospel into Latin mistook the word kamilos (rope) for kamelos (camel). But since the teaching is clear all the same, the exegetes did not deem it necessary to rectify the mistake.

Amusing mistranslations

In this category, one finds the following English mistranslation of Dieu défend l’adultère: God defends adultery. Without realizing that the two verbs are faux amis, the translator produced an unfaithful translation that essentially condones looser morals leading to marital infidelity.

A renowned linguist whose work was translated into Danish attended a major conference in Denmark, where he was very surprised to learn that a theory presented by a colleague—which was entirely new to him—was in fact attributed to him. It was all the result of a translation error. However, the distinguished linguist found the theory so compelling and sound that he adopted it on the spot.Footnote 13 It just goes to show that a mistranslation can give rise to progress.


During a visit to China, Montréal Mayor Jean Drapeau, speaking through his Chinese interpreter, invited his audience to “hit his brother when he is drunk” (battre son frère quand il est ivre). Surprised to hear the mayor advocate such violence, the journalists requested a transcript of his speech. The mystery was solved when they discovered that the mayor had in fact said, “strike while the iron is hot” (battre le fer quand il est chaud).Footnote 14

In another context, a Spanish delegate turning on his microphone said, “Estoy constipado, perdónadme,” in other words, “Please excuse me, I have a cold.” Not paying attention, the French interpreter rendered his words as, “Excuse me, I’m constipated.” The French delegation collapsed into gales of laughter, causing a stir in the room and arousing the curiosity of all. Everyone tuned into the French channel and turned around to look at the booths. The interpreter, embarrassed, attempted to explain, but to no avail. Amid the general amusement, the poor interpreter was asked to leave.Footnote 15 That day, a delegate’s indisposition earned the interpreter an earful….

In conclusion, experience shows that although translation errors sometimes lead to grave consequences, like the horrible carnage at Hiroshima, they can also do good by producing new place names, breathing new life into biblical imagery, advancing linguistics and amusing an audience—not to mention introducing new navigation techniques through the use of an old cap (un bonnet).

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