Once upon a time, humans all spoke the same language – at least that is how the biblical story of the Tower of Babel goes. While we cannot confirm whether this story is true or not, the reality is that nowadays more than 7000 different languages are spoken around the world. To connect all these different people, translations are essential. The global languages service market is expected to grow by 9.72 billion US dollars during 2020-2024, with a current size of 49.6 billion US dollars in 2019. The art of translation is a difficult one, especially in a globalised world where we rely on translation in every aspect of our life so heavily that there is no room for mistakes to be made by translators. From the books we read and the videos we watch to the speeches of foreign politicians broadcasted in the news, a world without constant translation has become unimaginable. Yet we tend to take these translations for granted and never think about the difficult work going on behind the scenes. Most importantly, we tend to forget about the disastrous consequences that a wrong translation can have. Think about what could happen if a mistake were made during peace negotiations between two enemy countries. A correct translation could mean the difference between peace or war.
Translating from one language into another is far more work than simply translating vocabulary. When approaching translations, aspects such as idioms, sentence structure and cultural context play an important role. Thus, any translator must know both the grammar and culture of their target language well enough to create not just a good translation, but one that makes sense in the language they are translating it into. There are several difficulties translators are faced with when they approach a translation. Firstly, a single word will almost always have multiple meanings. The translator has to choose which meaning is the best translation given the context and the intention of the author.
Depending on the translator’s mother tongue, some languages are a lot more difficult to translate than others. This often depends on which language family a language belongs to. A language family is a group of related languages that developed from a common historic ancestor, referred to as protolanguage (proto– means ‘early’ in Greek). There are about 147 language families in the world and languages in the same language family tend to have similar grammar structure and vocabulary.
Take for example English, German and Sanskrit which along with many other languages belong to the Indo-European language family. When learning any of these languages, you will encounter many words that share the same word stem such as mother (English), Mutter (German) and matar (Sanskrit), or new (English), neu (German) and navas (Sanskrit). Some of the hardest languages to translate (from English) are the so-called isolate languages – namely languages that do not belong to any language family. One of these languages is Korean, the most spoken isolate language with 75 million speakers. This means that there is no similarity to other languages, and this makes it especially difficult for translators.
When translating (political) speeches one often has to deal with the difficulty of translation idioms and colloquial expressions that do not exist in their target language. When faced with expressions such as “grab them by the p***y”, a phrase famously said by former U.S. president Donald Trump, translators around the world struggled to portray the meaning of this statement. Generally speaking, translating rhetoric is always a struggle. Trump’s unique rhetoric relies on broken syntax and frequent repetition which often does not make sense when translated word for word. Translators around the world have found different ways of dealing with this. In China the word p***y has been translated to “private places” or “their nether parts”. Translating foreign politicians’ rhetoric accurately while simultaneously portraying its cultural implications continues to, and will always be, a struggle.
Translation also plays an important role when we consider global politics. Without translators, the work of institutions such as the United Nations and other international organisations would be nearly impossible. Mistranslation has the potential to lead to unbelievable disasters. On the 6th of August 1945, the US dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima, three days later the second one fell on Nagasaki. This historic event might have been prevented if not for a translation error, according to an article by US State Senator John J. Marchi. In response to the demand for all Japanese troops to surrender (the Potsdam Declaration), Japan’s Prime Minister replied that he “refrained from comments at the moment”. The media wrongly translated the Japanese word Mokusatsu (silence) as “not worthy of comment” instead of “refraining from comment”, giving the sentence a much more hostile meaning. While it is impossible to judge whether this mistake alone prompted the US to use its nuclear weapons, it shows how important an accurate translation is and how dire the consequences of mistranslation can be globally.
The art of translation has been around for thousands of years and will continue to play a crucial role in our globalised world. Accurate translations can significantly influence the outcome of global politics but also interpersonal communication. We should always think twice before blindly accepting a translation, be it of a politician’s speech or the media we consume.