Knowing how to speak two languages is not the same thing as knowing how to translate. With the numerous nuances in meaning across languages and cultures, translation is a special skill that professionals work hard to develop. The problems that arise when something is mistranslated can be comical – indeed, dangerous – and can have far-reaching consequences.
NASA reminds us of an unusual instance which dates back to the late 19th century.
In 1877, Giovanni Virginio Schiaparelli, armed with that century's advances in telescopes, began mapping and mapping areas on Mars. "He named the Martian 'seas' and 'continents' (dark and light areas) with names from historic and mythological sources," write the Aerospace Scholars.
Crucially, Schiaparelli "saw channels on Mars and called them 'canali.'
"Canali means channels, but it was mistranslated into 'canals' inplying intelligent life on Mars. Because of the then recent completion of the Suez Canal – the engineering wonder of the era – in 1869, the misinterpretation was taken to mean that large-scale artificial structures had been discovered on Mars."
Not only did the importance of canals for worldwide commerce at that time "influence the popular interest in 'canals' on Mars," but Boston astronomer Percival Lowel in 1894 decided that the canals were real, created by intelligent Martians, and built to carry waters from the polar caps to the equatorial regions.
This in turn led the young English writer H.G. Wells to, in his novel "War of the Worlds," write of an invasion of Earth by deadly aliens from Mars; launching, write the Aerospace Scholars, a whole new genre of alien science fiction.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the "canals" is that most experienced astronomers have never seen them. "We now know," write the Aerospace Scholars, "that they never existed.
"The network of crisscrossing lines covering the surface of Mars was only a product of the human tendency to see patterns, even when patterns do not exist.
"When looking at a faint group of dark smudges, the eye tends to connect them with straight lines."
The Aerospace Scholars is an Educational Outreach Program between NASA's Johnson Space Center and the State of Texas.
Translation & Interpreting
With a roster of over eighty native-speaking teachers in over 30 different languages, the Beverly Hills Lingual Institute has the expertise to address many translating and interpreting challenges. This is a highly customized service. Please contact us to discuss your translating or interpreting requirements.