The world is virtually shrinking. The relentless rise of both the internet and mobile telecommunications has seen people connected in every corner of the globe. It has created friendships and cross-cultural bonds, united people, and somehow brought the human race a little closer together. Having myself travelled extensively last year, I now boast Facebook friends in Sudan and Syria, Malawi and Montenegro, from the banks of the Nile to the Red Sea. It is incredible. Each and every time I log on, I am connected to this awe-inspiring network of people I have met, and places I have been.
There is, however, a flip side; a slightly more serious element to this new modern-age ease of communication. International relations has both benefitted and suffered in equal measure. Human rights can no longer be anything but universal. We, in the ‘developed world’ are now virtual flies on the walls of culturally alien states and vice versa. There is no longer a real sense of cultural divide, but rather a western created myth of the ideal. We of course represent that, and the rest are simply playing catch up. This imposing of our views and culture, this ego-centred and control driven masquerade of diplomacy usually ends in only one way; confusion.
To add to this melting pot of cultural uncertainty and over saturation, we have an obscene number of global languages. The bible has been at least part translated into 2508 different languages, and ‘Ethnologue’, an SIL International publication in 2009, listed a mind-boggling 6909 distinct global languages. Although translation services probably only deal with around 100-200 of these languages on a regular basis, the potential for misinterpretation is massive. Sometimes resulting in humorous travel anecdotes, on occasions, however, the consequences can be much more severe.
Coca-Cola famously had an awkward entrance into the Chinese market, when they printed thousands of advertisement placards saying ‘Ke-kou-ke-la’ or ‘Bite the wax tadpole’. After researching the extensive list of Chinese characters, they eventually converted to a similarly phonetic phrase of ‘ko-kou-ko-le’, which loosely translated as ‘happiness in the mouth’. One of my personal favourites is the repetitive occurrence of the chicken dish ‘Gordon Blue’ on restaurant menus around the world. It is a simple mistake, but one that always manages to raise a slightly guilty smile, as I indirectly mock someone for putting just one letter out of place.
Occasionally it is colloquialisms that cause the most humour and confusion. Phrases that often make no rational sense even in their original language can mean something entirely different when translated. It is often advertising slogans that suffer at the hands of such cross-language confusions, and listed below are a few famous examples.
Advertising slogans gone wrong
Original slogan – ‘Finger lickin’ good’.
Chinese translation – ‘We’ll eat your fingers off’.
Original slogan – ‘Turn it loose’.
Spanish translation – ‘Suffer from Diarrhoea’.
Original slogan – ‘We bring you back to life’.
Chinese translation – ‘We bring your ancestors back from the grave’.
The list goes on, leaving a trail of language related confusion in its wake. Sometimes even entire cities are lost in translation. An English language book translation of an Israeli tour guide recently stated ‘Jerusalem: There is no such city’. Rather than the original Hebrew version of ‘Jerusalem: There is no city like it’. Not exactly the best way to attract more tourists.
The even more sinister side of mistranslations, however, often come in the realm of politics, and has at times been incredibly destructive. It is believed that a misinterpretation of the then Japanese Premier’s response to the US threat towards the end of World War II, resulted in the catastrophic Atom bomb attacks on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. When faced with questions from news reporters regarding the warning of imminent destruction from the US, Suzuki simply replied ‘no comment’, as he hadn’t yet had time to plan a considered response. It was, however, mistranslated in the press as ‘not worthy of comment’, and interpreted as a further sign of Japan’s desire to fight on. Language itself can often be the cause of war and destruction.
Today the internet has brought with it a large number of online translation services, necessary to enhance the potential of global communications. As we can see from the examples above, the quality and nous of such services needs to be of a high standard, if it is to avoid insult, confusion, embarrassment, and even destruction.