Skip to main content

Lost and found in translation

I was reminded at the weekend of the apparent translating boo-boo that resulted in Cinderella's very impractical glass slippers. Allegedly, in the original French, she had slippers that were 'vair' - made very sensibly (if you don't belong to PETA) of fur. However, the translator was clearly having a bad day, and just as I tend to merrily type 'there' instead of 'their' when I'm tired, he or she read this as the similar sounding 'verre' - meaning glass. (Sadly, according to Snopes, this is unlikely to be true - HT to Matthew Surnameunknown for pointing this out. I still suspect there was something in it, though.)

So far, so amusing. But then it made me think of my books.

My various titles have been translated into a good few languages, and for all I know they could be replete with interesting changes of meaning. Of course they were translated by good, professional translators, but even so slip-ups can occur.

As it happens I know this for certain, by taking a quick look at my biography in the German translation of 'Instant Egghead Guide to Physics', which becomes 'Physik für Eierköpfe'.

I'm not sure where they got it from, as there isn't a biography in the English version, but if you take a look at this snippet from my website, you don't need to be a German speaker to spot what's wrong in the first line of the German version:

I know that's more a transcription error than a translation problem - an error that could occur even in an English version, but at least with English texts I see the proofs and can correct them. 

There are now rather a lot of translations out there, as the picture below indicates, with a good few more in production as we speak. With most, frankly, I haven't a clue, and my rusty school French and German would be little help in attempting to spot any errors even in those relatively familiar languages.

So what is the moral of all this? There may be errors, but there's not a lot I can do about them (unless an eagle-eyed reader sends me an email). That being the case, it's best not to say anything. After all, it is best not to be rude to a translator. They have an important job to do - and I don't want the literary equivalent of an insulted waiter spitting in a  customer's soup.


  1. While it is acceptable for a translator to make a few mistakes here and there, let's not be too lenient with their errors. After all, it would be more troublesome if the thought you're trying to convey is altered merely because of a mistake in translation. Also, I'm sure a professional and acclaimed translator won't translate your book wrongfully on purpose if you call him/her out on their mistake. Anyway, thanks for the great read as always, Brian. More power to you!

    Israel Oliver @ Atlas Translations

    1. Thanks, Israel. I'm sure you are right that a professional translator would not resort to revenge. It was more an attempt at a humorous sign-off than a genuine concern.

  2. I think that the job of a translator is to translate your work in a professional manner. With that being said, I think that any good translator will be more than willing to correct the mistakes that were made by them. And I don't think you should feel inclined to except mistakes that should be corrected. As a customer, what you want is what you should get.

    Sean @ Excel Translations

    1. I am sure you are right (and like Israel, I will let you get away with a link there), however the point was rather that because I can’t read the translated book, I don’t know if there are errors. Technically I’m not really the customer, that would be the publisher in the country where the translation is being made, and in practice they are the ones who will check the text.


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

Is 5x3 the same as 3x5?

The Internet has gone mildly bonkers over a child in America who was marked down in a test because when asked to work out 5x3 by repeated addition he/she used 5+5+5 instead of 3+3+3+3+3. Those who support the teacher say that 5x3 means 'five lots of 3' where the complainants say that 'times' is commutative (reversible) so the distinction is meaningless as 5x3 and 3x5 are indistinguishable. It's certainly true that not all mathematical operations are commutative. I think we are all comfortable that 5-3 is not the same as 3-5.  However. This not true of multiplication (of numbers). And so if there is to be any distinction, it has to be in the use of English to interpret the 'x' sign. Unfortunately, even here there is no logical way of coming up with a definitive answer. I suspect most primary school teachers would expands 'times' as 'lots of' as mentioned above. So we get 5 x 3 as '5 lots of 3'. Unfortunately that only wor

Why I hate opera

If I'm honest, the title of this post is an exaggeration to make a point. I don't really hate opera. There are a couple of operas - notably Monteverdi's Incoranazione di Poppea and Purcell's Dido & Aeneas - that I quite like. But what I do find truly sickening is the reverence with which opera is treated, as if it were some particularly great art form. Nowhere was this more obvious than in ITV's recent gut-wrenchingly awful series Pop Star to Opera Star , where the likes of Alan Tichmarsh treated the real opera singers as if they were fragile pieces on Antiques Roadshow, and the music as if it were a gift of the gods. In my opinion - and I know not everyone agrees - opera is: Mediocre music Melodramatic plots Amateurishly hammy acting A forced and unpleasant singing style Ridiculously over-supported by public funds I won't even bother to go into any detail on the plots and the acting - this is just self-evident. But the other aspects need some ex

Which idiot came up with percentage-based gradient signs

Rant warning: the contents of this post could sound like something produced by UKIP. I wish to make it clear that I do not in any way support or endorse that political party. In fact it gives me the creeps. Once upon a time, the signs for a steep hill on British roads displayed the gradient in a simple, easy-to-understand form. If the hill went up, say, one yard for every three yards forward it said '1 in 3'. Then some bureaucrat came along and decided that it would be a good idea to state the slope as a percentage. So now the sign for (say) a 1 in 10 slope says 10% (I think). That 'I think' is because the percentage-based slope is so unnatural. There are two ways we conventionally measure slopes. Either on X/Y coordiates (as in 1 in 4) or using degrees - say at a 15° angle. We don't measure them in percentages. It's easy to visualize a 1 in 3 slope, or a 30 degree angle. Much less obvious what a 33.333 recurring percent slope is. And what's a 100% slope