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No. 39, December 1997

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The language barrier in operation

by Eileen Dombrowski
Lester Pearson UWC, Victoria BC Canada

A few quite illustrative examples of errors in language translation!

The translation literature is full of anecdotes about errors which illustrate the foreign-language barrier in operation. Some errors are simply funny; others can provoke a diplomatic incident. The following were taken from From David Crystal's The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language (Cambridge University Press. 1995).

  • "L'Afrique n'erige plus des autels aux dieux ("Africa no longer erects altars to the gods.")", said one United Nations Delegate. The sentence was misheard as . . . "hotels odieux" and translated as "Africa no longer builds horrible hotels."
  • During a television interview in the United States, Soviet premier Khrushchev was told he was "barking up the wrong tree." However, this was translated into Russian as "baying like a hound"a highly insulting expression.
  • Many problems occur during Bible translation. In a translation into an Indian language of Latin America, "ass" was translated as "a small long-eared animal." The effect was to suggest that Jesus entered Jerusalem riding on something which closely resembled a rabbit.
  • In tone languages, it is almost impossible to adapt the words to a western melody and preserve the meaning. In one Latin American tone language, as a consequence, the missionaries found that a sung translation about "sin­ners" was in fact about "fat people."
  • "The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak." This English saying has been translated into Russian as "The vodka's good but the steak is rotten."

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