Translation goofs

This may not improve Bible translations, but it does relate to the challenge of translating meaningfully.

Since Denmark is a small country, the plethora of American movies (and some British films, too) that inundate our living rooms through cables and tubes or LCD screens have Danish subtitles. This is a good way for Danes to improve their English, since they listen to the English dialogue and read the Danish texts at the same time. Subtitles is the most read literature in Denmark. It also means that many people earn their living by translating and writing subtitles. The organisation of “texters” as they call themselves has a website with documented goofs in translation. I’ll give a few below, but sometimes a translator simply has to give up.

I remember a James Bond movie where James was in a lift going up to see the villain in a mansion floating in the ocean. We saw the floor of the lift open up and also saw the ocean beneath him. He managed to spread his legs and stand at a ledge at each side of the lift floor so that he did not fall into the ocean. When he entered the room where the villain sat, James said dryly: “I believe you wanted me to drop in!” The texter gave up on that one.

For the following goofs I shall give an English back translation rather than the actual Danish translation:

The Book of Job – What can I become? (The title of a well-known Danish book series telling young people about job possibilities.)

Jim is a Vietnam vet – Jim is a vet in Vietnam

It’s nice to have an early bird dinner – I enjoy this fowl dinner (English spelling rescued me here. Not natural English, I know. It is a back translation.)

The Spirit of Christmas Present – The spirit of Christmas presents

In these PC times you can’t make jokes about anything – In these computer times you can’ t make fun of anything

You are grounded – You are not allowed to fly (Said by a father to his son).

Everyone relates to her – she is related to everyone

You can say that again!You can repeat that!

She went to Reading University – She went to a reading class (Cheers to our British literacy friends.)

He hates my guts – He hates my courage

I hope it isn’t my tax return – I hope it isn’t my tax refund

Now you are dating yourself – Now you are having a date with yourself

There are similar examples from the world of Bible translation, but they are not quite so funny, and some are almost tragic.

6 thoughts on “Translation goofs

  1. iver larsen says:

    We can learn from our mistakes, and those of others. In these goofs, the problem is not a matter of clarity or naturalness in the receptor language. Modern, professional translators know their own language and they have been taught to produce am accurate, clear and natural translation.
    In every instance, the problem was a misunderstanding of the original text or its cultural background. In several cases the problem arose when the translator chose a possible sense of an English word, but a sense that did not fit the context. For instance, a “vet” may be a veteran or a veterinarian in American English. PC could easily stand for Personal Computer, but in this case it was Politically Correct. “Guts” can refer to “courage”, but not when used with “hate”.
    In Bible translation, the major problem is again how to correctly understand the original language in its cultural and historical context.
    However, there is a long tradition for Bible translation to be different from the translation of any other book. Because it is a sacred text with a lot of sacred baggage, there is a strong urge to preserve the original expressions, words and grammar as much as possible, and this often results in a translation that is not understandable or at least quite unclear and unnatural, e.g. “on the eight day”. Much of the LXX is like that. Jerome struggled with this problem.
    Although the tension between literal and meaning-based translations is not new, it is only in the last 60 years or so that there has been a concerted effort to move away from the literal mode to the meaning-based mode. It is a movement that is very slow, and in my experience it is a move that is enthusiastically welcomed by ordinary Christians “on the street”, but it is opposed or at least ignored by many pastors, bible students and theologians, just like the Catholic priests were against vernacular translations in the 16th century for various reasons.
    In Denmark, the common people enthusiastically received the first Bible in 1550 which was a fairly good, menaing-based version based on Luther’s work. But it did not take more than 100 years before two theological professors at the University of Copenhagen managed to kill this translation to the chagrin of the common people and substitute their own, very literal and difficult to understand translation. These professors were well-meaning, but ignorant of translation and communication principles. The Church in Denmark has suffered from that mistake for 350 years. Most Danish people hava a Bible on the book shelf, but they don’t read it, mainly because it is a literal version and therefore too difficult to understand. Even most Christians need to force themselves to read it, and they can only manage a few verses per sitting.

  2. Dru says:

    Thanks for that. Does that mean there still is no modern idiomatic Danish translation, even now? If not, one would say that this is a higher priority than producing a multiplicity of modern English versions, except that most Anglophone bible translators do not know Danish. Perhaps some of them could be taught other languages and redeployed – but only on condition they join teams that include native language speakers.

  3. iver larsen says:

    Hi, Dru,

    The Living Bible was puslished in Danish in 1994, but it was largely ignored in the churches by most pastors. This is similar to the reaction to the Living Bible in the US and I suppose in the UK.

    My wife and I were then asked to produce a thorough revision of the Living Bible based on the original languages, so we did that. The NT came out in 2003 as the Biker Bible and a regular edition in 2004. The revised New Living Translation of the whole Bible came out in November 2007, so it is still quite new, but it is slowly gaining ground in many churches. It is now in its fourth printing.

    The Bible Society published a meaning-based NT in Nov 2007, but it was rather radical in its approach and lacked input from any translation consultant. It has not been well received in the churches.

  4. Dan Sindlinger says:

    Great post, Iver.

    By the way, I’m curious as to why the title “Biker Bible” was selected for the 2003 Danish edition. Was the target audience motorcycle enthusiasts at that point?

  5. iver larsen says:

    Hi, Dan,

    Yes, the target audience was (and is) bikers. I think it is in its third printing now. It was published by and sponsored by The format was pocket size (4″ x 5 3/4). It had 64 color pages in front and the same aomount in the back with photos of and testimonies by bikers from several European countries. The text was only the NT without the footnotes.
    It is usually handed out at the big biker meetings by Christian bikers.

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