Every language in the world is an aspect of culture, and this means that translation and culture are intertwined together. The message the words carry is immensely affected by their cultural context. Phrases that may seem easy to translate may contain cultural subtleties that need to be accounted for, or else they may bring out a different meaning than intended. The media gives words different contexts and similar words passed from one culture to another have slight or radical different interpretations. Translating without deep cultural context can be a tricky affair especially when these meanings are critical.
An example was when Russian statesman Nikita Khrushchev during his speech at the United Nations said the infamous phrase “we will bury you.” This statement was a culturally insensitive mistranslation which was supposed to mean “we will out last you.” Sadly, most people interpreted the statement as a threat of invasion.
Another example was in 1840 when the British government entered an agreement with the Maori chiefs of New Zealand. The Maori people wanted the British government to provide them with protection from foreign traders, sailors and looting convicts. The British government, on the other hand, wanted to expand their colonial territory. Once they reached an agreement, the treaty of Waitangi was formed, and both sides signed it. The English document stated that the Maori were supposed to “cede to Her Majesty the Queen of England absolutely and without reservation all the rights and powers of Sovereignty.” The problem arose with the Maori version of the document, the British missionary who translated it indicated that the Maori people weren’t going to give up theirs over eignty, but governance. The Maori people thought they were getting a legal system and keeping their right to govern themselves. This isn’t how it turned out, and to this day many generations later the meaning of this treaty is still being worked out.
Many of these examples point out the need for cultural sensitivity and correct transferring of true meanings during translations. For more historical misunderstandings check the infographic below.