Translation Matters

Thursday 22 February 2018

Liudmila Tomanek, from Russian Translation World, highlights the importance of cultural understanding when translating.

When Saint Jerome, the patron saint of translators, was translating the Bible he was very meticulous and followed the original script almost word for word. Yet he made a mistake that impacted upon the image of the most revered prophet of the Old Testament, Moses. Chapter 34 of Exodus in the Vulgate, the Latin translation of the Bible, decorated the prophet with horns and that is how Moses was depicted throughout the years of the Renaissance. That particular version of the Bible was in use until 1960.

So, what happened? The answer is — a lack of cultural awareness on the part of Saint Jerome. In Ancient Hebrew shining rays could be compared to horns due to their similarity in shape. This metaphor just does not work in Europe. The actual meaning of that description was that the face of Moses was shining and emitting rays after his return from God. The shining rays may symbolise light, purity and holiness. Yet, throughout the history of Catholic Christianity horns were a part of the revered image of Moses — due to the translator’s error.

This example demonstrates the importance of cultural understanding in translation. It shows how crucial it is not only to have a good command of source and target languages, but also to maintain a profound knowledge of both cultures in every aspect and nuance.

When I came to this country 17 years ago, I knew the language and I was eager to communicate with people. But all too often a passing neighbour would say in a cheerful way “How are you?” and in my keenness to be friendly I would return a long answer detailing all of my recent news. At the end of my monologue I would discover myself standing in the middle of an empty street with the neighbour vanishing behind the corner. “How rude”, I would think, deeply offended. That was an example of my cultural ignorance.

In my native Russia people might be offended if you just say “I am fine, thanks”. They could interpret it as distrust and unwillingness to communicate. Yet in Great Britain “How are you” is the equivalent of “hello” and often just requires a friendly wave back with a short greeting. It is an exchange of good will and positive energy. Since that time I have spent many years learning the cultures of all my working languages and it has been of great help in my profession.

Not knowing cultural differences and translating out of context can have grave consequences and indeed history has some sad stories to prove me right. Translation errors have started wars and led to breaking relationships in politics, diplomacy and trade. Such was the case in the disastrous Hiroshima bombing in 1945, which came as the result of mistranslating the Japanese word “mokusatsu”, a reply to the ultimatum given to the country by US, UK, Russia and China after the Potsdam Conference. Japan answered with one word, and it was translated into English as “ultimatum not worthy of a response” whereas in reality that word meant “No comments. We are still thinking. Our reply is silence.” A better translation might have stopped the nuclear bombing and may have changed world history.

However, this is the field of politics and we are in the domain of trade and commerce. That is why I would like to finish my article by quoting a prospective customer — her observation on a poorly translated advertisement into Russian: “Best not to buy from a company that saves up even on a translator.”

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