By Araks-Naomi Zainali
How many times have you heard of an embarrassing misunderstanding sparked by faulty translation? What was the reaction of Chinese consumers to the bizarre claim “Pepsi brings your ancestors back from the dead?” Does Melbourne’s Moomba festival really take its name from a derogatory aboriginal term?
Often these anecdotes contain very little truth or no truth at all. This April Fool’s Day we break with tradition to explode some famous mistranslation myths.
1. President Kennedy proclaims “I am a jelly-filled donut.”
It’s 1963, the Berlin Wall has just been erected and the charismatic JFK has jetted in to Germany. West Berliners await his pledge of solidarity and are instead met with the words “I am a jelly-filled donut.”
The story goes that due to a grammatical slip, the president identified himself as a delicious German pastry dubbed a “Berliner.”
Given, however, that Kennedy wrote the speech with the assistance of Robert Lochner, a native Berliner and the chief German interpreter for the US during WWII, the account just doesn’t ring true.
Context is always the key to understanding. Even though JFK inserted an article before the noun (“I am a Berliner”), German listeners would have no doubt gathered his meaning.
2. The Japanese translated the title of Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath” as “The Angry Raisins.”
Was John Steinbeck’s heavy, Pulitzer Prize winning novel lumbered with a ridiculously comic title?
A 1989 edition of The Jerusalem Post gave the following account: John Steinbeck’s widow, Elaine, was in Tokyo to accept an honour for the author of The Grapes of Wrath. One particularly effusive Japanese man told her “We like your husband’s work very much, particularly The Angry Raisins.”’
The story was recycled five years later by The New York Times, with the friendly fan mutating into a helpful bookshop owner.
However, Japan’s National Institute of Informatics, after scouring multiple Japanese versions of Steinbeck’s masterpiece, detected no sign of enraged dried-fruit.
3. Pepsi promises Chinese the return of the dead
Sales were thriving in the West when the owners of Pepsi decided to tap into the Chinese market. The brands revamped, energetic image seemed a guarantee of success. Yet according to business legend, the slogan “Come alive with Pepsi” was rendered as “Pepsi will bring your ancestors back from dead” in Chinese. This left potential new consumers understandably perplexed.
So how much of this anecdote is true and how much is fabrication? Pepsi has never issued a denial. On the other hand, certain details are missing. For example, was the target language Mandarin, Cantonese or another dialect entirely?
Until we learn the specifics, it’s probably best to treat this story with a healthy dose of scepticism.
Can you think of any popular mistranslation anecdotes we’ve missed?
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