Nobody in the world ever wants to be misinterpreted. Misinterpreting someone’s words can lead to hilarity, mortification, or embarrassment. It can also lead to disastrous consequences that can affect one’s personal or professional relationships. In the world of politics, misinterpretation may inadvertently cause animosity, violence or even death.
The Carlos Tevez Incident
Recently, there arose a brouhaha over the mistranslation of a television interview given by Carlos Tevez, player for Manchester City. Tevez, who plays forward for the English club, is a professional Argentine footballer. In the interview with Sky Sports after the Champions League game against Bayern Munich a week ago, Tevez’s comments were apparently mistranslated causing the footballer to be suspended by Manchester City for two weeks while an investigation on the matter was underway.
Tevez was accused of refusing to play during the Champions League tie and refusing to play for the Manchester City again. Kia Joorabchian, adviser to Carlos Tevez, claimed that the Manchester City’s backroom staff who acted as interpreter got both the questions and the answers wrong. However, an independent translation of Tevez’s response seems to indicate that he actually refused to play.
Joorabchian said, "If you don't have a very professional interpreter then you have a problem. I speak Spanish and I speak English. I listened to the questions in English and I listened to the interpretation in Spanish and the interpretation was incorrect; it was a different interpretation.”
Sky Sport News was able to obtain an independent translation of the interview. This translation seems to confirm the mistranslation. At the moment, while the investigation is ongoing, Tevez is back in Argentina after being suspended for two weeks and being fined £500,000.
Other misinterpretations in history
The Tevez issue is not only the case of misinterpretation in human history. There were many other misinterpretations and some of the victims were big names in politics.
During a speech delivered in 1956 to an audience of Western Ambassadors by Russian President Nikita Khrushchev at the Polish Embassy in Moscow, he was to have said, “We will bury you” in Russian. This was supposedly the last statement of his speech that discussed why communism is better than capitalism. It sounded like a challenge to the United States. The Americans of course reacted negatively. Since this happened during the Cold War, it was expected, that the US was up in arms. But the thing is Khrushchev was misinterpreted. The literal translation of the sentence in question was actually “We will be present when you are buried.”
This does not really sound much better but it is actually a common saying in Russia. What Khrushchev wanted to say was the “We will outlast you;” that is, communism will outlast capitalism. Khrushchev did not threaten the US with nuclear war.
In 1977, US President Jimmy Carter was in Poland for the very first news conference by the United States in a communist nation. A translator was on hand but he was not a good one at all because he made Carter look like a creepy, sex maniac. When Carter said, “I have come to learn your opinions and understand your desires for the future,” the interpreter, $150/day freelance linguist Steven Seymour, gave this translation: “I desire the Poles carnally.” Creepy indeed!
It did not end there. The translator had many more missteps. He used Russian words and syntax that were unacceptable in Poland at that time. Seymour also misinterpreted Carter’s statement regarding leaving to go back home to the US as Carter never returning to America. Seymour successfully turned the whole event into a hilarious and politically offensive diplomatic snafu for the Carter administration.
For the next event in Poland, Seymour was replaced by Jerzy Krycki who was a former member of the US Embassy in Warsaw. Carter, while attending the state banquet, delivered a toast. After Carter’s first sentence, the president stopped to allow Krycki to interpret. But Krycki said nothing. Carter continued on to his next sentence then paused. Still nothing from Krycki. The supposed interpreter could not understand the president’s English! So he deemed it better to not say anything than make the same mistakes Seymour made. The Polish leader’s interpreter took over for the rest of the toast. The Poles had a field day at the expense of Carter.
Israel’s Deputy Defense Minister, Matan Vilnai, was accused of using the word “holocaust” against the Palestinians. The truth is, he never used the word “holocaust.” It was a mistranslation by famed news agency Reuters, which the British Broadcasting Company picked up. The word that Vilnai used in his original statement that was mistranslated was “shoah.” Reuters translated “shoah” as holocaust. To Jews everywhere, holocaust meant genocide. “Shoah,” in the context of what Vilnai was saying meant “disaster.” He never alluded to genocide of the Palestinians. Of course the Hamas jumped onto this mistranslation and quickly exploited the Reuter’s mistranslation. A spokesman for Hamas said, “We are facing new Nazis who want to kill and burn the Palestinian people.”
1945, it was the nearing the end of the 2nd World War, Japan was faced with only two options: continue the war they started in the Pacific or surrender to the Allies. The Potsdam Declaration was issued by the Allies because Prime Minister Suzuki was taking too long to respond. Essentially, the document said that the Japanese had to surrender or face the consequences of “prompt and utter destruction.” The US at that time had, on standby, its secret weapon: the atom bomb.
During a press conference in July of 1945, Suzuki used the word “mokusatsu” meaning “no comment” when asked about the Potsdam Declaration. Apparently, when the Domei News Agency translated the term “mokusatsu” in English, the news agency used the word “ignore.” US radio that picked up the translation used the term “reject.”
What Suzuki wanted to say was that he still had not come to a decision and so he did not want to rush anything. When international newspapers ran the story, the papers wrote that Suzuki felt the Potsdam Declaration was “not worthy of a comment.”
The US opted to drop the atom bomb in Nagasaki because they felt that they were facing a longer campaign in the area. If this was the case, more lives will be lost. The US, together with the Allies, chose to end the war swiftly. It may be a different world today if Suzuki used a different word or if the translators translated the word “mokusatsu” with the correct context and intent.
Mistranslations in the Bible
The original Old Testament was written in Hebrew with some books in Aramaic. The New Testament was written in Koine Greek. Many website mention mistranslations in the Bible. This is not the least bit shocking because during the time that the Bible was first translated from its original language, there were probably no set rules for translation.
As the books of the Bible were further translated into different languages and dialects, the original intent may have been diluted. Some words were mistranslated, some words were added and some words were probably omitted.
But with the case of the Bible, the flaws in translation are not so important to true believers in the word of God. Faith in the Good Book reigns. A mistranslated word will not shake the beliefs of true Christians. Today, there is no one Bible to speak of because the Bibles differ among denominations.
Interpretation and translation is serious business
Unfortunately, unlike boo-boos in translating the books of the bible, when you are talking about legal translations of documents or interpretation of speeches, interviews, talks and the like, there is no room for error. Misinterpreting or mistranslating even a single word can lead to dire consequences. As evidenced by the examples above, interpreters and translators have a very important role to play in keeping peace and harmony and in ensuring that anything written or said is understood according to its original context.
It is not uncommon that certain words in one language has no direct translation in another. It can also happen that a word in one language can have a very different definition in another language. This is why there is a need to hire only translation or interpretation companies that provide high quality services. Mistakes in this area can have serious consequences.
When interpreting or translating, nothing should be lost so as to avoid confusion. There is no room for loose translations or interpretations. Accurate translation and interpretation is necessary. Information should never be diluted. The original intent of the speaker or the document must be clear, unaltered and precise.
Big companies and international institutions pay a premium for translation and interpretation services. But the fees are all worth it. They receive legal documents that have been accurately translated. Many freelance translators cannot guarantee the quality of their work. As globalization continues to wrap its arms around the world, there will be greater demand for translation and interpretation services.