Why Mistranslation Matters

Mark Polizzotti in the New York Times:

Translation is the silent waiter of linguistic performance: It often gets noticed only when it knocks over the serving cart. Sometimes these are relatively minor errors — a ham-handed rendering of an author’s prose, the sort of thing a book reviewer might skewer with an acid pen.

But history is littered with more consequential mistranslations — erroneous, intentional or simply misunderstood. For a job that often involves endless hours poring over books or laptop screens, translation can prove surprisingly hazardous.

Nikita Khrushchev’s infamous statement in 1956 — “We will bury you” — ushered in one of the Cold War’s most dangerous phases, one rife with paranoia and conviction that both sides were out to destroy the other. But it turns out that’s not what he said, not in Russian, anyway. Khrushchev’s actual declaration was “We will outlast you” — prematurely boastful, perhaps, but not quite the declaration of hostilities most Americans heard, thanks to his interpreter’s mistake.

More here.