Want to hear about a translation error of biblical proportions? In 1987, Pope John Paul ll visited Miami in Florida. Merchandising companies all over the area worked like crazy to capitalise on the historic visit and sell their wares. One T-shirt maker, not wanting to miss out on the multi-cultural opportunities, had ‘I saw the Pope’ shirts made, translating the slogan into in a variety of languages, but a tiny error on the Latin American one reduced the spiritual leader of the Catholic Church to a very earthly position. Instead of the correct ‘El Papa’ the slogan read ‘La Papa’, suggesting that the wearer had seen ‘the potato’.
The same year, a small American airline, Braniff Airlines, started promoting the fact that all of its flights were super luxurious with the line ‘Fly in leather’. This clearly referred to the seats, but the Spanish translation, ‘Vuela en Cuero’, meant, ‘fly naked’ – a slightly different connotation than the intended one.
This next one could have started a religious war, and had it gone ahead it would have instantly alienated at least half an entire population. In 1994, the telecoms company Orange had just launched its now familiar slogan, ‘The future’s bright, the future’s Orange’. Fortunately, a politically aware employee noted that this might not go down too well in Northern Ireland, where there is a very strong loyalist Protestant movement called the Orange Order. For a company to have hung its brand on a promise that a bright future would come in the shape of one of the two major religious factions in Northern Ireland would have been commercial suicide among the Catholics. This is a great example of localisation compared to translation, and their equal importance!
Imagine you have friends over to visit from Hungary, partly because they want to practise their English. While you are sitting in the living room after dinner on the first evening, the travel is clearly catching up with their child and he starts to get fidgety. The parents suggest that he go to bed which turns the restlessness into tears, and then one of them says, ‘Why are you giving drinks to the mice?’
You look around to see if Harry the Hamster has escaped or the cat has brought in a little present again, and your quizzical looks lead your guests to explain that is just the translation of what people say in Hungary when kids cry!
OK, so maybe there is some logic there. Mice live on the ground and that is typically where tears fall, so potentially they could drink the tears, but sometimes phrases have no decipherable explanation or origin. In Poland, for example, when someone is daydreaming, it is said that they are ‘thinking of blue almonds’. While I like the sound of this and there is a somewhat romantic connotation, it really does not make any sense.
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