Translators and clients alike fear really bad mistranslations. But in some exceptional cases, mistranslations have actually turned out all right. Here are a few examples:
- English as She is Spoke. Making fun of bad translations isn’t just a modern concept. In the 19th century, a senseless Portuguese-English phrasebook did the equivalent of going viral, as fan Mike Drucker points out. Cribbed together by Pedro Carolino, a man who didn’t speak English, but seemed to have wanted to cash in on the reliable dictionary market (he even named José da Fonseca, a reputable translator, as his co-author, though da Fonseca had nothing to do with it), it’s full of inscrutable and often unintentionally hilarious translations. Dubbed “English as She is Spoke”, it became a comedic hit in 19th century England, and its American edition included a praise-peppered introduction by none other than Mark Twain. Want to see if it can make you laugh out loud? You can read it for free here or here.
- “All your base are belong to us.” When Zero Wing, a Japanese video game, was released to the US market in 1989, players were soon raising eyebrows at its questionable translations. Among them, “All your base are belong to us” quickly became a favorite. A few years later, fans on the internet started creating videos, music, and photoshops featuring the phrase, transforming it into an online icon.
- Cinderella’s slippers. Have you ever thought that, pretty as they might be, glass slippers probably aren’t a picnic to walk — let alone dance — in? It turns out that Cinderella may not have had to worry about that. It’s said that in the fairytale’s original version, her slippers were made of vair, an old French word meaning “fur”. But there was an error somewhere along the line, and vair was substituted for the homophone verre (“glass”). Of course, we all know that, despite the mistake, this is the version that’s stuck. And as an anti-fur advocate, I’m all for it.
- “We will bury you!” Soviet Union premier Nikita Khrushchev uttered this utterly terrifying phrase during a speech in the most frigid days of the Cold War. But it actually isn’t as threatening as it would seem. The phrase’s words were translated more or less correctly, but not their meaning, something that all too often happens when it comes to idiomatic or figurative expressions. In fact, “We will bury you” isn’t a threat; it’s a way to say, “We will outlast you.” Khrushchev and his translator were wrong, but while the Soviet Union is long gone, the phrase’s famous mistranslation lives on as a (false) symbol of aggression and pride.
- Chocolates for him. Most countries put their own spin on foreign customs, but one of Japan’s choices is directly due to a now-famous mistranslation. In the 1930’s or ‘50’s (depending on the source), a publicity campaign promoting Valentine’s Day used the phrase “chocolates for him”…which was actually a mistranslation of “chocolates for her.” The Japanese took it seriously, and to this day, women buy men chocolate for the romantic holiday – and receive no gift in return. There is some hope for Japanese women with a hankering for free sweets, though: in the late 1970’s, White Day was established. Celebrated on March 14, it’s a day for women to receive gifts. But since these are traditionally white-colored, it doesn’t seem like delicious dark chocolate is on the menu….
Of course, these fails-that-became-wins (or, in the last case, that-became-wins-if-you’re-a-Japanese-man-who-loves-chocolate) are the exceptions, not the rules. To avoid bad translations, be sure you research translators or translation companies and choose a reputable one. After all, as an abundance of funny pictures on the web and countless unnoticed but perhaps serious communication errors show, not all mistranslations become the stuff of legend.