There is no shortage of political or diplomatic incidents in international archives caused by mistranslations, often due to false friends. Some blunders, however, are comical rather than harmful.
One such example is cited in John Coleman-Holmes’s book Mâcher du Coton. As a Spanish speaker once started to address the delegates of a conference by saying “Please excuse me, I have a cold”, the French side suddenly burst into laughter. Curious as to the cause of this hubbub, the rest of the delegation tuned into the French channel, looking towards the interpreters’ booths. In a lapse of concentration, the Spanish-to-French interpreter had translated “Estoy constipado, perdónadme” as “Excuse me, I’m constipated”.
Mistakes (and painful embarrassment) happen to us all…
It is somewhat surprising, if not confusing, that Cape Despair in the Gulf of St Lawrence in Quebec be called Cape of Hope in French. Is it due to different experiences with a twist of irony, or to a mistranslation perhaps?
Breton explorer Jacques Cartier named the cape Cap d’Espoir (Cape of Hope), but the apparent similarity between the French “d’espoir” and English “despair” led to some confusion, with the result that the same spot is now called the opposite in English to what Cartier meant.
Cape Despair in French would be Cap Désespoir.
Photo: Stéphane Gauthier
Last week, a train company getting in the international mood of the Olympics was reported to have put posters up in the London area that showed a text in Arabic in which the letters were detached and back to front, making the text unreadable. A font change by someone who clearly can’t read Arabic is all it took.
The legend of St Ursula, the patron saint of young women and education, says that the Breton princess, who refused to marry the king of the Huns, was tortured and each of her following eleven thousand virgins killed.
Or were there eleven thousand of them? There are various arguments and theories as to the exact original number, but the most common one seems to be that the original text mentioned Ursula being accompanied by one friend, a virgin called Undecimile. This name being very rare, the translator would have interpreted and rendered the name as “Undecim Milia” in Latin, i.e. eleven thousand.
Photo: Martyrdom of St Ursula before the City of Cologne, c. 1411. commons.wikimedia.org
Because my name looks French, people assume that I am French (which could be a mistake since names can be misleading, especially in the case of a woman). So when I send a thank-you e-mail to someone, I sometimes get a reply saying “Mon plaisir!”, a literal translation of the English “my pleasure”.
Unfortunately, literal translation rarely works. In this case, “mon plaisir” is suggestive of something personal that I’d rather not think about… Why do people randomly mention their pleasure to me? That’s not the sort of e-mails I want to see in my inbox.
PS: The right phrase is “(Tout) le plaisir est pour moi”. Nothing more, nothing less and nothing else.
Michelangelo’s famous sculpture of Moses exhibits a surprising feature: horns. While the Hebrew text describes the prophet as coming down from Mount Sinai with a radiant face, St Jerome’s Vulgate translation depicts him with horns.
The Hebrew word keren (plural karnaim) can mean either “horn” or “ray”.
Photo: Sahil Anand/Facebook