As defined by pretty much any dictionary, accuracy is nothing but the absence of errors.
But, as translators and interpreters, we all know that you can sometimes be correct without being necessarily accurate. This inevitably calls for a more detailed definition that considers accuracy as conformity to truth, models and standards.
If you are among those who lean more towards synonyms than definitions, think of the first meaning as correctness and the second one as exactness.
And if you happen to like playing around with words, you know that you can be correct without necessarily being exact. Politicians do it all the time! However, you cannot be exact without being correct… unless you are exactly incorrect, ha!
Is this getting too philosophical? I hope not because this is a blog, not a treatise.
Accuracy is crucial in most professions today. In the medical field, for instance, it can have life or death repercussions. The same applies to any scientific, technical and technological fields, where accuracy is the basis for quality, efficiency, productivity and/or efficacy.
But accuracy is also important in other industries — imagine a cake made with an inaccurate recipe! And translation is not an exception. An accurate translation conveys the right message in the right way. Obviously, as language is essentially cultural and is not an exact science, establishing the level of accuracy can be harder. And even what can be deemed accurate in one situation may not be so in others.
Because that would require a lot more time and space than a blog allows for, let’s instead see some examples in which inaccurate translations have had dramatic effects in human history.
When in the late 1870’s, Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli was studying Mars, he spotted what seemed to be channels. Then, the Italian word canali was mistranslated as canals instead of channels, leading many to believe there was intelligent life on the planet. This was also one of the sparks that prompted the subsequent boom in science fiction.
Case No. 2
In the 1830s, there were moments of tension in the diplomatic relations between France and the United States when a secretary mistranslated the French word demander in a message sent to the White House and told the President about the French government’s demands instead of their requests. Luckily, everything was clarified soon enough.
Case No. 3
When in the 1980’s a teenager suffering a brain hemorrhage was admitted in a Florida hospital, his family thought he had food poisoning and explained in Spanish to a bilingual staff member that he was intoxicado. The term was mistranslated as intoxicated and he was admitted and treated as a case of overdose. The delay in the actual treatment resulted in a young man becoming quadriplegic and a malpractice lawsuit.
Case No. 4
St. Jerome, the patron saint of translators, himself made a mistake when translating the Old Testament that resulted in Moses being depicted or described with horns for quite a good time until the error was corrected. The original text used the Hebrew word qaran (radiance) to describe Moses’ head but the translator understood it literally. The primary meaning of the word is in fact horns but, figuratively, its meaning refers to the rays of light or radiance associated with God, which could be seen irradiating from behind Moses’ head as he came down from Mount Sinai. St. Jerome’s Latin version then became the source for further translations that also carried the mistake. And even paintings and sculptures portrayed a horned Moses for a long time after that. So, it wasn’t Michelangelo’s fault after all, ha!
There are many more famous examples of mistranslations, such as a statement by President Carter during visit to Poland that ended up with sexual connotation or a metaphoric comment by Nikita Khrushchev that ended up sounding more threatening than it really was during the cold war years. I am sure you can read about them in multiple sources.
Now, while some of these have entered the history books, we all know there are many other cases that do not reach that level of popularity but can dramatically hurt the reputation of professionals in our field.
Sadly enough, many of these inaccuracies go unnoticed for some time. But that does not mean they disappear. They are still there and they could have negative consequences one day.
So, before we submit our next translation, let’s take some time to review it again… one last round of proofreading. Let’s not do it for ourselves. Let’s not do it for the client. Let’s do it for our colleagues! I know I will!