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The world’s first translation disaster is older than you think

It might seem like poor translation is a fairly modern problem. With businesses now more global than ever, the increased demand for cross-cultural communication also makes miscommunication more likely.

For example, when Starbucks introduced the Gingerbread Latte to Germany, it should have been incredibly popular. Gingerbread is loved in Germany; in fact, the tradition of building gingerbread houses at Christmas originated there.

However, much to their surprise, the drink didn’t sell well. Why? Poor translation. In fact, no translation at all. Gingerbread is nonsensical in German and Latte literally means pole and is a slang term for a penis.

Realising their mistake, the following winter they began selling the “Lebkuchen Latte”, and sales dramatically improved, although many still giggled at the word “latte”.

But “translation fails” actually predate the latte by at least 1700 years.

Although language barriers feel like a 21st century issue, accuracy in translation has been a very real problem for thousands of years.

One of the earliest known translation fails, in a cruel ironic twist, is thought to have been committed by St Jerome, the patron saint of translators during the 4th century.

When translating the Bible from Hebrew into Latin (the common language of the day) he allegedly mistranslated a passage on Moses.

The Hebrew version described Moses descending from the mountain with a radiance about his head. The Hebrew word for radiance is “karan”. St Jerome took this mean “keren” instead which means horned.

A simple mistake of biblical proportions lasted millennia. Michelangelo gave Moses horns in his famous sculpture. It is even thought the racist stereotype of the “horned Jew” emanates from St Jerome’s innocent mistake.

Ever since people started communicating there has been miscommunication, and these mistakes can have huge ramifications. Whether that’s a passage in a holy book that reverberates through centuries or the menu in a chain of coffee-shops.

At Global Voices we wouldn’t want to criticise St Jerome, he did his best. His mistake resulted from the absence of resources.

Starbucks on the other hand, aren’t as easily forgiven. With expert translators just a call away, there’s no excuse for bad translation.

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