Lost in Translation

This is the third post I’ve gotten from reading Alchemy: The Dark Art and Curious Science of Creating Magic in Brands, Business, and Life by Rory Sutherland, and the second time I’m using the quote copy feature of my Kindle app.

Here’s the paragraph that captured my attention:

 I had never heard of this translation gaffe, so I had to look it up. Here’s a bit more detail:

In 1977, President Jimmy Carter went on a state visit to Poland, and the State Department hired Steven Seymour, a freelance linguist who was known for his expertise with translating written Polish to help with translation.

It did not go well.

  • Carter’s statement, “I have come to learn your opinions and understand your desires for the future.”  was translated to “I desire the Poles carnally.”
  • Carter’s statement about how happy he was to be in Poland was translated as he was happy to grasp Poland’s private parts.
  • Carter’s statement, “I left the United States this morning” was translated into “I left the United States, never to return.
  • Carter went on to praise the Polish constitution of 1791 as one of three great documents in the struggle for human rights. What Seymour told the Poles in attendance was that their constitution was to be ridiculed.

As you might imagine, Seymour the translator was let go after this debacle.

I think Sutherland’s point in his book is that if you are a speaker, don’t assume that the people who are listening to you are interpreting things the way you meant them to be interpreted, and if you are the listener don’t assume that what you are hearing is what the speaker means to convey. This holds true for the obvious case shown above when translating from one language to another.

But the problem exists even when the speaker and the listener are using the same language.

Each party should be sure the message is being heard correctly before acting on it…

Lost in Dictation