History’s Biggest Translation Mistakes – Part 2

Translation Mistakes - Active Languages

History’s Biggest Translation Mistakes – Part 2

There are too many translation mistakes out there to put into just one article, so here’s the next leg of your trip back in time to explore the effects of being lost in translation. Hop in the Active Languages translation time machine and let’s visit the 19th century!

Is there life on Mars?

Let’s take you right back to 1877 when the Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli produced detailed maps of Mars based on his time at the Brera Observatory in Milan. He named the details and features of his maps after mythical or actual places on Earth such as Libya, Utopia and Arabia. So far, so good. The issue arose with his use of the word “canali” to describe the thin dark lines weaving in and out of the planet’s northern hemisphere. The Italian word means “natural channels”, but it was translated as “canals” and Schiaparelli’s peers ran with the idea that Martians had built the engineered waterways themselves! The scientific research that resulted from the mistranslation inspired countless works of science fiction until most planetary astronomers finally dropped the idea in the 1960s.

Wuchale woes

Back in the 1880s, Emperor Menelik II made a treaty with Italy to secure his Ethiopian throne after a civil war with Eritrea, which was under Italian rule. There were two versions of the Treaty of Wuchale which outlined the border between Ethiopia and Eritrea and stated that Italian citizens would have special rights in Ethiopia, be judged by Italian laws etc. One was in Italian and one was an Amharic. The stumbling block was the use of the verb “can” in article 17: “His Majesty the King of Kings of Ethiopia can use the Government of His Majesty the King of Italy for all treatments that did business with other powers or governments.” The Amharic version has a similar definition for the verb “can” as in English: Ethiopia has the option of using Italy as a channel for international relations if it so chooses. However, the Italian take on “can” is an obligation, meaning that Italy has complete control over Ethiopia’s foreign policy and international relations, taking away its freedom as a state. Unsurprisingly, disagreements ensued until Italy declared war on Ethiopia and lost at the Battle of Adwa.

Like a rabbit caught in the headlights

We’ve all heard of Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte, but have you heard of his brother Louis? The Emperor made his younger sibling King of Holland between 1806 and 1810 and was devoted to his Dutch subjects, so much so that they nicknamed him “Louis the Good”. The king ignored his powerful brother’s restrictions on his reign by defending Dutch trade interests and cutting military spending. He visited Leiden in 1807 after a cargo ship full of gunpowder exploded and left the town in tatters, then in 1809 he personally supervised aid in Betuwe after the region had been hit by significant flooding. Louis had a fondness for Dutch culture and founded establishments including the Royal Netherlands Academy of Science, the Royal Library and the Rijksmuseum. But just as famous of all his good deeds in Holland, is the legendary quote: “Iek ben Konijn van Olland.” In a gesture of goodwill to master his kingdom’s language, Louis introduced himself as a “rabbit of Holland” instead of the country’s king. At least he tried!

It’s time for us to stop “rabbiting” on now! We’ll be back with part 3 soon but in the meantime, if you have any questions or translation requirements, get in touch with Active Languages. We’ll take care of you.

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