Lost in translation: how translation has changed the world

River cruises through Europe and other such travelling can throw up a multitude of languages in the space of one trip and leave many a traveller feeling dumbfounded by the language barrier, but they are not alone. Translation is a tricky thing and has proven a difficulty in history and, in some instances, changed the world as we know it.

Here we look at some vital phrases that will help you through a trip to Germany, some of the words that are for all intents and purposes untranslatable into the English language and just how translation has changed the world.

From the untranslatable

There are some words and phrases you would struggle with even if you had a personal translator to hand because, as the wonderful nature of the human race works, some words have occurred in various languages that simply can’t be easily translated into words in languages separate to their own.

Here is an example of some words that have no simple English translation, you might even find that they offer a perfect description of something you might never have been able to describe in English; many may certainly have felt the indescribable ‘L’appel du vide’ when waiting for their river cruise ship to dock.

Waldeinsamkeit (German)

The feeling of being lost in the woods and feeling a connectedness to nature.

Fernweh (German)

To feel homesick for a place you have never been.

Schilderwald (German)

A street crowded with so many road signs that one becomes lost.

Schadenfreude (German)

The feeling of enjoyment obtained from witnessing misery in others.

Verschlimmbessern (German)

The act of making something worse in the attempt to better the situation.

Torschlusspanik (German)

Literally meaning “gate-closing panic” and understood to mean the fear of opportunities lessening with age.

Dépaysement (French)

The feeling associated with not being in one’s home country.

Rire dans sa barbe (French)

To laugh quietly in one’s beard whilst thinking about an event past.

L’appel du vide (French)

Literally translated as “The call of the void” but understood to mean the feeling of an urge to jump from a high place.

Lítost (Czech

A state of torment created by the sudden sight of one’s own misery.

Prozvonit (Czech)

The act of calling someone’s mobile phone only to have it ring once so that the recipient of the call would call you back.

To the mistranslated

Even the most spoken languages can be an issue for many a traveller, whether you’ve accidentally asked for a ‘aspirateur’ (vacuum cleaner) in a French pharmacy rather than a ‘inhalateur’ (inhaler) or just got your ‘je suis’ and your ‘j’ai’ confused, translation, or more the case mistranslation, often throws up all manner of issues abroad. To make you feel a bit better here are some of the most famous examples of mistranslation that have gone on to change the world and perceptions of how we see certain historic events and sayings. Who knew Napoleon was actually 5ft 7!

David Hänig’s 1901 paper ‘Zur Psychophysik des Geschmackssinnes’ was mistranslated by Edwin Boring and has led to many people, even to this day, to believe that different areas of the tongue are designed to recognise different tastes, where, in fact, the whole tongue is capable of distinguishing all different flavours. This was misinterpreted to be differences in sensitivity to certain tastes.

Even novelist Victor Hugo has been mistranslated in his time, with his famous quotation ‘On résiste à l’invasion des armées, on ne résiste pas à l’invasion des idées’ often interpreted in English as ‘One cannot resist an idea whose time has come’ whereas a more literal translation would be ‘One can resist the invasion of armies, but one cannot resist the invasion of ideas’. This is an example where mistranslation has seen the original meaning modified as ‘One cannot resist an idea whose time has come’ is now a more widely recognised and common saying.

Another famous example of mistranslation from French to English relates to the image of Napoleon Bonaparte. The interpretation of his height from French feet, 5’2’’, was never translated into the equivalent English measurement, which is approximately 170cm, 5’7’’. This gave way to the interpretation that Napoleon was actually just over five feet tall and instigated what is known in modern culture as ‘Napoleon Syndrome’ or ‘Short Man Syndrome’. This phrase relates to what is considered an inferiority complex surrounding men who act aggressively as if compensating for their lack of height. In fact, neither Napoleon’s actual height or this psychology are correct as some studies have found that taller men tend to act more aggressively to provocation, such as in this study.

And the helpful hints

Here travel bloggers from around the world give their one German phrase that you should learn before your river cruise break.

“My favorite is ‘Entschuldigen Sie bitte mein deutsch ist nicht so gut’ (excuse me please, my German is not so good). That and a smile help a lot.”

     -  Chris Christensen, AmateurTravler.com

“How to order beer.  The Germans craft a very nice beer and I wouldn't want you missing out on any of that.”

     -  Brendan van Son, brendansadventures.com 

Which, if you were interested, is ‘Ein Bier bitte’ translating as ‘one beer please’ But be aware that there are many different types of beer so be sure to research this ahead of your trip.

“‘Bitte (schön) en Danke’. You can never be too polite when traveling.”

     -  Nina Tack, travelboulevard.be 

The above meaning the equivalent of ‘you are very welcome’ and ‘thank you’.

“An essential phrase that any budget traveller appreciates having to hand - 'Wie viel kostet das?' (How much does it cost?) Be it a souvenir, a cup of coffee or food nobody enjoys being ripped off, so it's always better to learn this before going anywhere.”

     -  Ania & Jon, HitchHikersHandbook.com

We’d love to hear your language barrier stories or even your most useful foreign phrase whilst travelling; share your tales on the Emerald Cruises Facebook and Twitter pages.

Image Credit: francis mckee (flickr.com)

This content was written by Angela Sloan. Please feel free to visit my Google+ Profile to read more stories.