Pomp and Intertext

Cultural Commentary by Erica Eller

Tag: Mistranslation

Link round-up: mistranslation

We sometimes take comfort in knowing that we’ll forever be misunderstood by outsiders.


One of the first essays that really turned me on to translation–not as a practice, but as a kind of ‘genre’ of literary critique–was Borges’ essay on the translation of 1001 Arabian Nights.

The Thousand and One Nights by Jorge Luis Borges

Of course, the evocative and elusive essay by Walter Benjamin, “The Task of the Translator,” came soon thereafter.

The Task of the Translator by Walter Benjamin

While translation promises the noble pursuit of universal communication, more often we are such tribal, provincial, territorial creatures that our language resists transcendence–sometimes intentionally so.

We sometimes take comfort in knowing that we’ll forever be misunderstood by outsiders. And this applies not only to languages of nations, but to languages of different professions, languages of different races, and even language differences between generations.

One thing that has become clear to me, both from reading these essays and from living abroad and trying my own hand at translation, is that mistranslation is inevitable. Delightfully so!

For those with the necessary insider knowledge, mistranslations are a joy to unravel for the humor that arises from discovering the latent boundaries between different languages. I even find discussions on mistranslation entertaining to read. That’s why I’ve created a list of articles that take a stab at identifying and decoding mistranslations in some capacity.

Here they are, in no particular order:

Admittedly, this is just meant as fodder for nerdy amusement. I do realize, though, that such discussions are capable of starting holy wars when sacred texts are involved. I also know from editing translated book quotations that it is very easy to mince/distort the words of non-native speakers, who are often very important people (such as when people assumed that JFK made the err of saying “I’m a jelly doughnut” in German). This is when the humor turns sour. But, alas, that’s for another post/author/blog to discuss. I hope you’ve enjoyed my list. Add your own links in the comments, if you feel inspired.

xo, Erica


A mis-translation of lines from Interstellar

With so much huffing and puffing against the ideological underpinnings of of director Christopher Nolan’s 2014 movie Interstellar from some of my favorite sources of critique, I thought I would try my own hand at understanding its flaws through this simple effort at mis-translation. I considered the famous lines that cause us all to stir at their sudden clichéd arrogance and thought about the associations they triggered for me. Granted, my associations are perhaps “hyperbolic” and based on a lot of ideological residue accumulated from the overall dismay I feel towards Hollywood. Nevertheless, I simply re-worked these associations into a series of mis-translations:

Interstellar script: “We are explorers, pioneers, not caretakers … We’re not meant to save the world. We’re meant to leave it.”

Translation 1 anti-feminism: “We are assholes, rapists not honorable human beings … We’re not meant to love women. We’re meant to leave them.”

Translation 2 neo-liberalism: “We favor expansion, colonization, not domestic resolution … We’re not meant to allocate tax money to social programs. We’re meant to steal and profit.

Translation 3 anti-environmentalism: “We are bio-geneticists, astro-physicists, not permaculturists … We’re not meant to understand ecology. We’re meant to deny it.”

Translation 4 ahistoricism: “We are explorers, pioneers, not caretakers. We’re not meant to honor our agreements with the natives. We’re meant to commit genocide.”

Translation 5 aristocratic romanticism: “We are dreamers, visionaries, not pragmatists … We’re not meant to save the animals from extinction, the women from committing suicide, or the lower classes from poverty. We’re meant to miss them when they’re dead.”

Translation 6 derivative art: “We are enthusiasts, plagiarizers not artistic innovators … We’re not meant to enhance film as an art form. We’re meant to copy Stanley Kubrick.”