One of the most engaging accounts of a literal translation is described in Hooman Majd’s book, The Ayatollah Begs To Differ.
In Iran, the phrase marg bar Amrica ( مرگ بر آمریکا) is often chanted at rallies and seen on signs held by unhappy protesters. The phrase is most commonly translated literally as “Death to America”, but it actually means ”Down with America”. Hooman Majd, a former interpreter for Iranian President Ahmadinejad, has explained that “Death to America” is far too harsh of a translation. As Majd pointed out, Ahmadinejad also handed out potatoes in exchange for votes, after which protesters chanted ”Marg bar seeb zameeni!” They were literally saying “Death to potatoes”, but it’s pretty far fetched to assume that their intention was to kill the spuds.
The above excerpt is from Jost Zetzsche’s book, Found in Translation, which mentions a myriad of instances of literal translations and interpretations gone wrong because of the fine nuances associated with cultural idioms and values.
Computer translators may be one of the most accessible and the least expensive translation tools but they fall short when it comes to taking nuances into account if one wants to convey the exact meaning. Either by design or by error they can cause irreparable damages. Read more
During a recent visit to Iran a friend shared an interesting dilemma. She had just graduated from one of the most prestigious Universities in Tehran. While the faculty is renowned and acclaimed, and the standard for achievement is set very high, most of their textbooks were difficult to read. She specifically mentioned a textbook in Economics that was translated into Farsi. The text didn’t make sense. It was obvious that a highly technical text had been translated too literally. I remembered my own struggle as a young student in Iran and my frustration when studying textbooks that were translated.
I was waiting for the elevator of on the 9th floor of a quiet office building in midtown. It was noon and I was headed to have lunch after a productive morning at work. A colleague approached me and asked, “How different are Arabic and Farsi?” I had been asked the question many times and I always knew the answer: Arabic and Persian (commonly known as Farsi) have the same alphabet but Persian has 4 extra letters and they are two different languages. This time, however, the question made me re-think my answer.
At first, I thought this statement could actually be my perfect motto. As translators and interpreters, we agree that so much of the meaning can be lost in our work. Of course, Nietzsche’s point of view is a deep philosophical statement and does not lend itself to a superficial, short and precipitous examination.
As a court interpreter, however, I would readily disagree. Legal proceedings are based on facts and my interpretations would lose their objectivity if I overlooked the facts in favor of renditions.
Still as an interpreter, I am very mindful of how true this statement may sound. For example, trying to translate some of the best poems of Rumi or Hafez seems impossible. Even the best poetic translations that currently exist fall short of capturing their true and deepest messages.