Five translations that changed the world


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Translations happen everywhere, all the time. Each is important in its own realm, but only rarely does a translation influence an entire culture, or planet. This is our list of five translations which were real game changers.

1. Hittite-Egyptian peace treaty

This was a few years ago but it really set the ball rolling. It is the world’s first known written translation.

After a long war between the Egyptians and the Hittites the two parties signed a peace agreement, the Treaty of Kadesh (also known as the Eternal Treaty). It was recorded in both the Egyptian and Hittite empires. The Egyptian version was inscribed in hieroglyphics in two temples dedicated to the Pharaoh, while the Hittites jotted theirs down on baked clay tablets.

2. Don’t wait for translation (Cuban Missile crisis 1963)

Strictly speaking this phrase was not actually part of the translation but, as such large part of such an important verbal exchange, it couldn’t be left out.

Tensions were running high in 1963 after the US became aware of USSR mid-range missiles being transported into Cuba: just 90 miles from the US mainland and within reach of major US cities.

In a heated exchange at the UN Security Council American Ambassador, Adlai Stevenson, asked his Soviet counterpart Valerian Zorin, if he would deny their existence. As the USSR representative grew increasingly obtuse, Stevenson grew increasingly frustrated, finally demanding, “Don’t wait for the translation, yes or no”.

Given that just about everyone in the free world with access to a newspaper or TV news had seen the pictures, it was always going to be a tough one for the Russians deny. The missiles left Cuba.

3. Life on Mars

In 1877, Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli recorded seeing what appeared to be canali, on the surface of Mars. Some years later his writing was translated and canali was taken to mean ‘canals’.

Enthused by the prospect of planetary navigators beyond the earthly realm, scientists espoused multiple Martian theories. Each scrambling over the next to postulate what form of civilisation could have completed such feats of engineering.

One man did more than any to fuel the commotion. Percival Lowell made Mars his life’s work. He published three books Mars (1895), Mars and Its Canals (1906), and Mars as the Abode of Life (1908).

Along with his own intricate drawings of the planet’s surface markings (as he perceived them), he convinced many people that Mars sustained intelligent life forms – presumably equipped with shovels.

Over time a huge sub-culture of books, films and fervent believers developed. From Jules Verne to David Bowie, the world wondered, is there life on Mars?

But it all came to nought. Canali is actually a general term to describe channels, which can be part of the natural world and not purposely created. No canals and no Martians, a fact confirmed by NASA’s Curiosity rover which took a spin over the planet in 2012.

Sorry Ziggy, but there is no life on Mars.

4. An atomic mistranslation

WW2. Tokyo, Japan. July 1945.

The Pacific war was drawing to a close and it was only a matter of time before an allied victory. The Japanese however, had vowed to not go quietly and Washington feared a protracted island-by-island battle before they eventually landed in the land of the rising sun.

Hoping to force a swift conclusion, the US government publicly issued the Potsdam Declaration: a request to Japan demanding unconditional surrender or risk “prompt and utter destruction”. Then waited for a response.

It seems that in 1940s Tokyo, the media were no less intrusive than modern-day paparazzi, and they hounded Japanese Premier Kantaro Suzuki non-stop for a statement of his government’s intent. Finally, Suzuki called a news conference and said the equivalent of, “No comment. We’re still thinking about it.” Suzuki had used the word ‘mokusatsu’ as his “no comment” response.

The problem is, “mokusatsu” can also mean “we’re ignoring it in contempt,” and that was the translation relayed back through the media, to the American government. Ten days later, and still with no formal reply from the Japanese government, the US followed through on the Potsdam Declaration and dropped the Hiroshima bomb.

5. Misspelt youth: the story of Donkey Kong

Throughout the 1980s, amusement arcades throughout the western world rang to the sound of a small man jumping over barrels thrown at him by an angry ape. And everyone playing that arcade game wondered where the name ‘Donkey Kong’ came from.  Several stories persist. Our favourite involves a contextual mistranslation.

The game’s creator, Shigeru Miyamoto, wished to convey the idea that the ape in the game was big and a bit stubborn, and a bit ‘goofy’. Aware of King Kong as a big ape, he chose Kong as part of the name. Unsure of the English equivalent of ‘stubborn’ he decided to flip through the dictionary and landed on the word ‘donkey’ to convey the other half of his meaning.

When Miyamoto first suggested this name to his company, Nintendo, it was dismissed, but gradually the contextually questionable translation began to stick and ‘Donkey Kong’ became the global pseudonym for the game’s big stubborn ape.

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