Whimsical Post #7: Translation quirks (and what befell Jimmy Carter)

Translating into a language from another can be a tricky business, specially when it comes to some metaphors or idioms peculiar to a language such as English, which abounds in such linguistic curiosities…. take the list of collective nouns – they are enough to keep a battery of translators engrossed, not to mention confounded.  But idioms are the best. I remember two examples where people (like me I guess – blessed with a highly creative mind and the habit of doing things whose sense and utility may not be readily apparent) translated something from English into an another language and then re-translated and found the results surpassed all expectations.

One of this was the phrase “out of sight, out of mind” which after subjected to this process, resulted in the immortal “invisible lunatic”…. which in one sense is not wrong though it doesn’t certainly express the original intention. But this is the complexity (and undoubted beauty) of the English language.

The second phrase was “the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak” which after its transformation informed everyone that the liquor was fine but the meat had gone bad.

This was one facet. What about those whose linguistic skills are not upto the task…. I remember reading somewhere a befuddled individual translating the Indian government’s forest renewal and replantation programme, the Van Mahotsav, from Hindi to Urdu rendered it “Junglee Jalsa” and was promptly transferred right somewhere into the boondocks….. now try translating that into other languages. Don’t look at me that way…it is definitely an English word.

And then the best comes ….. well read this incident yourself . This account of a speech the American President Jimmy Carter made during a visit to Warsaw in the days of the Cold War may be seem to come out of particularly lurid fiction but it really did happen. No one has been able to find out until now whether the interpreter/translator was not capable enough or decided to indulge in a rare sense of humour….. I personally go in for the latter explanation.

As the account I read – years and years ago – goes:

Carter (to bored but polite gathering of 500 Poles): “When I left the United States….”
Interpreter (spontaneously adding): “never to return.”
(Sudden interest in audience. Glances of disbelief at each other)
Carter (oblivious of commotion): “I understand your hopes and aspirations……”
Interpreter: “I understand your lusts…”
(Sudden hush, more and marked glances of disbelief and a spate of muffled giggles from some quarters)
Carter (now worried but gamely maintaining composure and continuing bravely): “I desire closer cooperation with the Poles….”
Interpreter: “I desire the Poles carnally…”
Pandemonium in the assembly  (though this word plainly falls short of describing the scene).

The aftermath: Later, a State Department spokesman, asked about the incident, breezily dismissed it: “It was not a good translation. There will be a new interpreter tomorrow.”

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