The biggest interpreting mistakes in history.

January 9, 2015 § 40 Comments

Dear colleagues:

Interpreting is a very difficult profession. It deals with the widest variety of themes and subject matters, and it completely depends on the human brain. All professional interpreters have made mistakes at one time or another, and we will make some more before our careers are over. Fortunately, good interpreters know how to recognize a mistake, and have the professional honesty needed to own their mistakes and correct them. We all know how to correct a blooper from the booth, with a physician, or on the record in court cases. This is enough in most cases, and we have professional liability insurance for those bigger errors we can make while practicing our profession. Most goof-ups do not go beyond a correction, an apology, and a good dose of embarrassment. Unfortunately, every once in a while an interpreter makes a mistake that can literally impact the entire world. I know that there are many more examples of these catastrophic interpreting mistakes, and I am even aware of many more than the ones I have included in this post. To decide what to include, and to drive home the point that none of us are safe from making an error of this magnitude (and that for that reason we must be alert at all times) I considered the relevance of the mistake, and the variety of interpreters who made them. These are the biggest interpreting mistakes in history that made my list:

In 2006, according to the interpreter’s rendition, the president of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad called for Israel to be “wiped off the map”. It was learned later that what he actually said was “the regime occupying Jerusalem must vanish from the page of time”. Regardless of your opinion about this statement, it is clear that its reach was different from what the interpreter understood. In a region of the world as delicate as the Middle East a mistake of this magnitude can have huge implications.

To continue with more presidents, in 1976 U.S. president Jimmy Carter spoke to a Polish-speaking audience and opened his remarks by saying: “I left the United States this morning”. The interpreter’s rendition was: “When I abandoned the United States”. Those present laughed at the obvious mistake, but things got more complicated later during the speech when the president said that: “…I have come to learn your opinions and understand your desires for the future…” The rendition by the same interpreter was: “I desire the Poles carnally…” and then the interpreter went on to criticize the Polish constitution. Of course these mistakes should never happen at that level, but sometimes they do.

This reminds us of the famous blooper during Nikita Khrushchev’s speech at the Polish Embassy in Moscow when he was interpreted as saying, in reference to the United States and the Western World at the highest point of the Cold War: “We will bury you”. Now we all know that what he really said was: “We will outlast you”, and we all know of the consequences that this poor rendition generated during such a tense time in history.

In July 1945 after the United States issued the Potsdam Declaration demanding the surrender of Japan in World War 2, Japanese Prime Minister Kantaro Suzuki called a press conference and in a statement he said: “No comment. We are still thinking about it”. Unfortunately, the interpreter’s rendition was: “We are ignoring it in contempt”. We all know what happened next.

In 1980 Willie Ramírez, an 18-year old, was admitted to a Florida hospital in a comatose state. At the time of admission, an interpreter made a mistake and translated the Spanish term “intoxicado” which means poisoned or having an allergic reaction as: “intoxicated”. Willie, who was suffering from an intercerebral hemorrhage was only treated for an intentional drug overdose. As a result, he was left quadriplegic.

St. Jerome, the patron saint of translators, studied Hebrew so he could translate the Old Testament into Latin. His translation contained a famous mistake, When Moses comes back from Mount Sinai his head has “radiance”, in Hebrew: “karan”; but because Hebrew is written without vowels, St. Jerome read: “keren” which means “horned”. Because of this mistake we have many paintings and sculptures of Moses with horns.

Finally, we all remember Thamsanqa Jantjie, the Sign Language interpreter at the Nelson Mandela funeral. He made meaningless Sign Language motions during the ceremony for unknown reasons. He has since been committed to a psychiatric hospital for schizophrenia.

The lesson is clear. As professional interpreters we have to protect our profession from paraprofessionals, “wanna-be interpreters”, ignorant clients, and unscrupulous agencies, but we also have to watch what we do and say. Nobody is above error, so our only choice is to continue to practice and study, to honestly decline those assignments that we are not ready for, and to look after our colleagues in the booth, the courtroom, the negotiations table, or any other venue where we may be providing our services. I now invite you to share with the rest of us other interpreting mistakes, big or small, yours or a colleague’s, in the spirit of helping our colleagues so that we all learn from each other’s mistakes.

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