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Translation in the News!

It’s quite rare for translation and foreign languages to hit the headlines, but when they do, the results can be quite spectacular!

Take a look at some of our favourite news stories involving grammatical gaffes, Google Translate and politicians mastering foreign languages!

Emmanuel Macron thanks Australian Prime Minister’s delicious wife – 2018

In May last year, the French president, Emmanuel Macron, paid a visit to the land of Oz for a number of talks on trade and security.

At the end of a press conference in Sydney, Macron thanked the then Australian prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, for his hospitality.

His choice of words was a little suggestive, however, when Macron thanked Turnbull and his “delicious wife” for their warm welcome.

Some reports suggested that Macron had walked into a classic ‘false friend’, or rather ‘faux ami’, trap – the French word “délicieux” is most commonly used to describe food, but could also be used to describe a person in French. The direct translation doesn’t quite work the same way in English though; it would be better to use “delightful” or “lovely” instead.

This isn’t quite as bad as former French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, apologising to Hillary Clinton for the “time” though. Unfortunately he chose the wrong translation of the French word “temps”, which can mean both “time” and “weather”!

Sign language interpreter at Nelson Mandela’s memorial service – 2013

Nelson Mandela’s state memorial service was broadcast live on news channels around the world in December of 2013.

But one aspect of the service caused outrage and received criticism from viewers – the sign language interpreter.

The man in question, Thamsanqa Jantjiee, stood next to world leaders, including Barack Obama, and members of Mandela’s family and was supposed to replicate their speeches in sign language.

However, viewers took to social media to complain that his signing was a load of rubbish. Apparently the “childish hand gestures” made absolutely no sense!

The man was later banned from working as an interpreter by Deaf South Africa after sign language experts studied his hand signals in detail…and came to the conclusion that he didn’t really know what he was doing.

A Telegraph article from 2014 reported that Mr Jantjiee had decided to take his career in a different direction and was looking for acting work…

Brexit white paper translations gone wrong – 2018

Okay, we know that Brexit is the subject of pretty much every headline at the minute, but in July 2018, the spotlight was on translation…

The UK government’s white paper on its plans for leaving the EU was translated into the languages of several member states…

And it wasn’t the content that shocked its readers, but rather the remarkably poor translations!

The German version of the document was described as “unreadable” due to its use of incredibly archaic vocabulary…

Estonia and Finland were misspelt in the Estonian and Finnish translations…

The French version was criticised for making Brexit sound virtuous by translating “a principled Brexit” to “un Brexit vertueux”…

And the Croatian version used a term for the United Kingdom that hasn’t been used in official documents for years!

And in January of this year, it was revealed that government ministers had paid £1.5 million to the European Commission for ‘translation services’ – clearly it wasn’t money well spent!

Kennedy’s Ich bin ein Berliner speech – 1963/1988

In June of 1963, US President John F. Kennedy gave a speech in West Berlin, through which he aimed to demonstrate the US’ support for West Germany.

In his speech, Kennedy twice used the phrase “Ich bin ein Berliner”, which translates into English as “I am a Berliner”.

Years later, 25 to be precise, the speech hit the headlines again, but this time the focus was on a supposed grammatical gaffe and its hilarious translation into English!

An article was published in the New York Times that claimed that Kennedy’s well-known phrase actually translated as “I am a jelly doughnut”, and even went on to suggest that this part of the speech was met with laughter by native German speakers in the crowd. The story was picked up on by news outlets around the world…

A ‘Berliner’, or ‘Berliner Pfannkuchen’ in full, is a sweet German treat that’s similar to a doughnut but without the hole in the middle. And if a German wanted to say they were from Berlin, they would usually say “Ich bin Berliner” – without the indefinite article “ein” or “a”.

But the news reports have since been dismissed as myths. A German translator working for the US State Department and a German-speaking interpreter helped Kennedy compose his speech. Apparently it was clear that he didn’t have a natural flair for languages and that’s why they only wanted him to use a couple of actual German phrases in his speech.

Due to the fact that Kennedy had a thick American accent when speaking German, if he had used “Ich bin Berliner” as a native German-speaker would, it would have sounded silly because any German listener would know that he wasn’t from Berlin, or even Germany.

By using “ein”, he was able to demonstrate his solidarity with the people of Berlin, saying that he was one of them, without actually being one of them…

The reports of laughter have also been dismissed. There was laughter from the crowd, but it came a few seconds after Kennedy had used the “Ich bin ein Berliner” phrase for the first time in his speech when he jokingly said to the interpreter, “I appreciate my interpreter translating my German”.

Google Translate used for world fair Expo – 2015

In 2015, the world fair Expo in Milan was making headlines for all the wrong reasons!

The event focused on “feeding the planet” and saw 145 countries take part, along with a number of international and non-governmental organisations.

Plenty of money had been invested in the exposition, but it seems the organisers wanted to cut a few corners when it came to translation.

And while there was a great deal of focus on the role that technology plays in our food and diet, it seems they forgot to do their research on the impact that technology can have on translation…

The organisers were accused of having used Google Translate to create the content for the English version of their website.

Eagle-eyed journalists noticed that what was written on the English website was exactly what you’d get if you entered the Italian version into Google Translate…

Here are a few cringeworthy examples:

  • Region that go, project that you find: Tourism, but not only.
  • “We can ride on giant fruits, smell fragrant bells and learn that food is a feast.”
  • “We can choose from more than 150 events per day, (…) and find that food is joyous.”

A blog that focuses on translators being paid fairly, No Peanuts for Translators, claimed that Expo 2015 used non-native speakers (as well as Google Translate) to translate their content and had paid them poorly. Well you know what they say, if you pay peanuts, you get monkeys!

We know that translation is quite an overlooked art, but it seems that when it does get any publicity, it tends to be for any number of embarrassing faux pas!

I guess it’s true that the good translations go unnoticed!

Needless to say, you don’t need to worry about any of our translations making the headlines for all the wrong reasons!

Get in touch if you need a quote that’s a bit more than peanuts for a translation that won’t be done using Google Translate!

And if you know of any other amusing news stories to do with translation, let us know – we’d love to hear them!



Isabella Fink

Isabella Fink

I am native Austrian and studied Linguistics and Literature at the University of Innsbruck and in Manchester, so language and translation has always been a passion of mine. Before joining Tongue Tied, I have worked as a Translation Assistant and in Customer Services and Purchasing.

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