Sarah Sands: Lost and found in translation

Knowledge is power – especially when it comes to languages

Share
Related Topics

The globalisation hitch is that the people of the world speak approximately 6,700 languages.

Each mistranslation is a setback in human relations. For instance, the telegenic young explorers Mark and Olly went to live with an Amazonian tribe for a reality television series. The tribe was alleged to have said: "We use arrows to kill outsiders who threaten us." According to anthropologist viewers who, against the odds, spoke the same dialect, what the tribe actually said was: "You come from far away where lots of gringos live."

The popularity of the gap-yah survival television genre depends on cultural contrast and squeamishness. We want our plucky, muscular, floppy-haired young men to eat maggots and undergo extreme piercing. There should be an underlying, Prince Philip-like amused astonishment at foreigners, followed by a moment of reflective platitude.

If the life swap deposits you among moderate people who ask if you had a pleasant journey, then you are fast losing television altitude. A frantic producer will ask if it is time for the penile mutilation ceremony yet.

There is travel, and then there is the "travel experience", which is meant to be life-changing. We are either in search of National Geographic or "Paradise". This assumes that humanity as well as nature is utterly different but benign. The couple who took their vows in the Maldives were shocked to find – when friends watched the wedding video on their return – that the smiling hotel staff who acted as witnesses were actually calling them swine and infidels.

As always, knowledge is power. There must be a book in the role of translators in diplomatic relations. I have often wondered at the courtesies extended to visiting statesmen by dictators. Sometimes it may only be the translator keeping the show on the road. Similarly, I am sure our firm questions on human rights must lose their purpose in translation. I suspect everyone ends up sounding like George Galloway in his ingratiation of Saddam Hussein.

If you ever doubted the art of translation, remember that Wendi Deng was Rupert Murdoch's interpreter in China before she became his wife. And we know how fast she is on the draw. When Murdoch said tenderly that his wife and their daughters spoke Mandarin at home, telling him only what they wanted him to hear, I had no doubts about the future of the News Corp empire. The rest of them don't stand a chance.

Bad translations are a headache for corporations and provide after-dinner speech anecdotes for politicians. Language teachers adore them. Every school child can tell you that Ich bin ein Berliner means I am a doughnut, however much grammarians argue that President Kennedy was correct.

I have heard many times the story of the television journalist who enraged Boris Yeltsin by comparing him to a hippopotamus, by which he meant that he had thick skin. When I worked at Reader's Digest, published in many countries, we were in constant search of phrases which amusingly unravelled as they travelled. I particularly liked the failure of the mobile phone slogan "The Future's Bright, the Future's Orange" to grasp the political sensitivities of Northern Ireland. The language of text provides felicitous new solecisms. A message of condolence can end "lots of love" (lol) which also stands for "laugh out loud".

Translation gaffes work because we are still slightly suspicious of linguists. Whenever the Newsnight presenter Emily Maitlis is described as a Mandarin-speaker, it sounds as if she acquired mysterious Wallis Simpson-like "skills" which we had better not talk about. Yet we should not underestimate the career-enhancing effect of a good translation. Just look what happened to John Wycliffe.

Sarah Sands is deputy editor of the London Evening Standard



React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Tradewind Recruitment: KS2 Teacher

Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: My client is a two form entry primary schoo...

Tradewind Recruitment: English Teacher

Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: My client is an excellent, large partially ...

Tradewind Recruitment: Science Teacher

£90 - £140 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: I am currently working in partnersh...

Tradewind Recruitment: Year 3 Primary Teacher

£100 - £150 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: Year 3 Teacher Birmingham Jan 2015...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

i Editor's Letter: Science versus religion in the three-parent baby debate

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff
Kylie has helped to boost viewing figures for the talent show  

When an Aussie calls you a ‘bastard’, you know you’ve arrived

Howard Jacobson
Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

Isis hostage crisis

The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

Cabbage is king again

Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
11 best winter skin treats

Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

Paul Scholes column

The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

Frank Warren's Ringside

No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee