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

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

Recruitment Genius: Project Implementation Executive

£18000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Chiropractic Assistant

£16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Chiropractic Assistant is needed in a ...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive - Midlands

£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides coaching ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Errors & Omissions: how to spell BBQ and other linguistic irregularities

Guy Keleny
 

South Africa's race problem is less between black and white than between poor blacks and immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa

John Carlin
NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

Let the propaganda wars begin - again

'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

Japan's incredible long-distance runners

Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

Tom Drury: The quiet American

His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

Beige to the future

Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own