One of the highlights to travelling through France is the delight in trying to make you understood to the natives. This usually involves a smattering of secondary school French, a little sign language and lots of shouting (It is true that if you shout loud enough foreigners will understand). In recent years though, more French people are speaking English and want to speak English. I don’t think its due to a flux if British and American visitors, more likely it is due to the increasing populace of Chinese and Japanese. English is taught as a second language in Chinese, Japanese and French schools so it makes sense.
However like all languages which pass through two or three grammar forms and vocabularies something is always lost in translation. The receptionist at the hotel spoke very good English, bade us farewell and wished us a nice road home. Google translator, while a godsend when booking hotels and self catering apartments, also provides some funny translations.
Translations have always been a bit of a minefield over the centuries. One little known mistranslation spawned a whole era of science fiction literature. In 1877 Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli published a paper about ‘canali’ on the surface of mars. The paper when translated into English reported ‘canals’ had been found on Mars. Canals by definition are artificial water channels thus an alien race must have existed on Mars and the canals were created as a last attempt to save a dying race. A theme which inspired a number of sci-fi stories including H G Wells ‘The War of the Worlds’.
The actual translation of ‘canali’ is ‘channels’ or ‘trenches’, Schiaparelli was merely noting natural terrain differences.
Perhaps the most widely translated book in the world is the Bible. There are over 50 translations in English alone and another 2500 plus in other languages. The original texts were in ancient biblical languages of Greek, Arabic and Hebrew and this was where the first mistranslations started. The Hebrew word for ‘virgin’ and ‘young woman’ were very similar so the Greek translation wasn’t to careful about the difference between the two.
Another problem is metaphors and cultural differences. A shepherd in todays society is seen as a peaceful guide, someone who cares and protects but in biblical times a shepherd was a sign of might, ferocity and royalty. Taken in this context the Lord is my shepherd takes on a whole new meaning. Another metaphor used during biblical times was the terms for kinship like ‘father’, ‘brother’ and ‘sister’ which was used to indicate power structures, so in the Book of Solomon the term ‘my sister, my bride’ refers not to incest but a woman’s equal status to her husband.
Mistranslation is a common occurrence so be wary when you have work translated into another language or you may end up with a very different story.