Ancient Translation Errors

One of the risks involved in the translation process is losing the meaning of certain words or concepts, or even that the translation lends itself to a totally different interpretation. Sometimes, these variations don’t affect the final result all that much and don’t generate any sort of significant confusion. However, throughout the history of mankind, many of these translation errors have led to conflict, war and have even changed the course of some religions.

For example, there is a theory that says that the worship of the Virgin Mary comes from a failed interpretation of the Hebrew word almah (young woman) which, when translated into, Greek means “virgin”. Without getting too controversial, we can already imagine the enormous historical repercussion that any other translation of that word could have had. If this theory is correct, then a single mistranslated word could have been the beginning of one of the most popular cults in the world.

Another case of erroneous translations occurred on Easter Island. It is theorized that the island, originally known as Rapa Nui (large island), was populated by former Polynesian travelers before the fifth century, who developed their culture apart from the rest of the world. The first European visitors, who came from Holland, arrived on Easter Sunday in 1722 (hence the name). They were later followed by the Spaniards, English, French, and even Peruvians. However, it was the Chileans who arrived in peace and decided to “stay” on the island. They eventually signed a treaty with their then king, Atamu Tekena. The treaty was both in Spanish and in Rapa Nui (or Pascuense). But, guess what? The texts of each treaty had a subtle difference in translation. In the Spanish version it was written that the Pascuenses had to cede complete sovereignty over the island and its people, whereas in the version written in Rapa Nui they believed they were only accepting the protection and friendship of the Chileans. To this day, the islanders refuse to become a part of Chile, and Chile considers the islands to be a part of the Valparaiso region…despite the fact that it is a six plus hour flight from the Chilean coast!

There are several anecdotes with outcomes of varying severity in the history of translation, which is why it is crucial that the translation process be as complete as possible in order to minimize the risk of such errors. At Trusted Translations we insist on a three step process: translation, editing and proofreading. This ensures that the result is as faithful as possible to the original text.