Power of a Single Letter

Much has been said about the consequences of mistranslation. Historians have commented on the fact that the Japanese attempted to warn the Americans of the attack on Pearl Harbor, but the information was incorrectly translated. Wars more ancient than that one have known to have begun as a result of a slip of the translator’s pen. What happens when an original text is incorrect, contains mistakes or is simply badly written? It seems that most translators either seek to duplicate the mistakes or even poor quality of a source text or they make the decision to ignore this fact and plod on in an attempt to do justice to the real intent of the author.

The same might be said of those legions of linguists who translated Neil Armstrong’s famous sentence when he left the Lunar Module “Eagle” and stepped onto the moon on the 20th July 1969. Mission control relayed the message to the rest of the world: “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind”.

Some people noticed the mistake immediately, some ignored it. The mind has a wonderful capacity for ignoring what is not needed, what is surplus to requirements. Strictly speaking Armstrong’s sentence did not make sense because “man” and “mankind” mean the same, of course. He should have said “a man”.

However, translators around the world all translated this word as “human being”. The Polish translation reads: “Zaledwie jeden krok dla człowieka lecz olbrzymi krok dla ludzkości”. The translator ignored his little grammatical mishap.

Let us move forward now to the 30th September 2006. Peter Shann Ford, a computer programmer from Sydney, Australia undertakes a scientific analysis of Armstrong’s recording and discovers Neil Armstrong’s missing ‘a’. Armstrong himself had been adamant that he did actually say “a man”. The Anglophone history books will have to be re-written. Interestingly enough, most others history books, written in all the other languages of the world, will not.


5 thoughts on “Power of a Single Letter

  1. As we can see, mistranslation may have various consequences. Some mistakes may be left unnoticed, while others might cause serious or even tragic consequences. As far as the “small mistakes”(those which don’t change the meaning much) are concerned, it’s quite excusable. It is either caused by lack of knowledge of a translator or by a simple human omission. But if we talk about the “big mistakes”(those which change the core meaning and leave serious consequences) this can not be excused so easily and should be done only by professional translators who are 100% sure and take responsibility for their translations.

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