Translation Errors Through the Centuries - Three Historical Mistranslations

Translation errors

Translation mistakes are all around us and while a Netflix subtitle error here and there might feel of little consequence in the realm of governance and politics errors can go from troubling to catastrophic pretty quickly.

Let’s look at three examples plucked from the history books - 

A King, Eager to Please

Louis Napoleon Bonaparte’s exclamation ‘Iek ben Konijn van Olland’ (“I am Rabbit of Holland”) in his poor Dutch became legendary, and is discussed at length on the Rijks Museum website. 

He (of course) meant to say that he was ‘King of Holland’ –  which he was from 1806 to 1810. Appointed by his brother the Emperor Napoleon, his more famous sibling perhaps was not aware of how linguistic limitations would surface.

In Dutch the correct sentence is “Koning van Holland” and, despite the comical nature of the mistranslation, you can’t help but think Louis Napoleon would rather have been right first time to engage his new subjects.

A Verb that caused a War

In 1889 the Empire of Ethiopia and the Kingdom of Italy signed a treaty that, on paper, was intended to secure good relations and trade – the Treaty of Wuchale.

However,  the Italian version was slightly different from the Amharic version: the latter stated that Ethiopia would have autonomy with an option of negotiating with third parties through Italy. 

Meanwhile, the Italian version established that all Ethiopian affairs would have to go through Italy. 

This was caused by the misuse of one single verb, that made the clause mandatory in Italian, and permissive in Amharic. Unfortunately, this led to constant disagreements and eventually a very ugly war that lasted for six years.

Haste makes Waste

In the case of the 2011 EU-Korean Free Trade Agreement, it wasn’t an individual translation mistake that produced the unwanted outcome, but a whole series of errors allegedly caused by a lack of time to review such a high-level translated document. 

Korean Trade Minister Kim Jong-hoon had to apologise to the public after discovering that their free trade agreement contained 207 translation errors. They had to withdraw the document and make all the necessary corrections. 

After working with several law firms, government agencies, and legal translation experts, they discovered an additional 128 mistranslated words and 16 typos. The ministry withdrew the revised version and had to come up with a completely new document. 

Summing Up

Mistranslations can have critical consequences in the area of politics and there are moments of enormous historical significance that have been shaped by use of language and differing interpretations as well as unambiguous errors.

For such momentous tasks, it is of course important the translator is up to the challenge and aware of, not only the complexity of the task, but also the huge repercussions any mistakes might have. 

At ICS we draw from an extended team of over 1000 native-language linguists, from different subject matter expert backgrounds, to make sure we have the right professional to deliver your translation tasks.