Translations Shaping History: the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

We have all heard about the funny results from machine translators in signs, restaurant menus or even badly thought out slogans that simply don’t translate well in another culture. This is not a modern problem, however. If anything, we could argue that it used to be much worse; translators today have all kind of resources available to help in their work. Until not so long ago, translation was an even more arduous task, and those who took upon the task had to rely solely on their own knowledge and judgement, and the limited tools at the reach of their hands.

This gave rise to many translation choices that, reviewed centuries later, seem to be outrageous. The obvious examples are those extracted from sacred texts like the Bible or the Quran.

ES translations intext

Treaty of Waitangi

In 1840 the British Crown and various Maori chiefs from what is today New Zealand signed a Treaty that granted the Queen sovereignty over the territory. Or maybe not: the translated version signed by the Maori stated that they conceded governance, not sovereignty.


A draft for the Treaty of Portsmouth, between Russia and Japan, almost causes it to not go through, as it was written both in English and French. In each corresponding versions, the English word “control” and the French “contrôler” were incorrectly used as synonyms, when “contrôler” means “to inspect”.

Know about other important historical translation mistakes? Share it in the comments!


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