Monday, September 13, 2010

The translation error that broke the world

As someone who just quit reading a translation of Oblomov upon finding the word "alright," I take pleasure in relaying the information that an error in translation caused the Great Depression. This from a comment (by "Justin") at a Tyler Cowen post about the effects of France's "gold hoarding" from 1927-32:
From Kindleberger, "The World in Depression":

"The central issue at the first Hague Conference [in August 1929] had been the unwillingness of Philip Snowden, the Labour chancellor of the exchequer [for UK] to accept the experts' recommendation on the division of [WWI] reparations... The Prime minister and the foreign office thought it absurd [for Snowden] to raise an international conflict and threaten to break up the conference over 80% of 2.5million pounds sterling. In the course of the debates, Snowden called an argument by Chéron, the French minister of finance, "ridiculous and grotesque," an expression strong in English but still stronger in French [see footnote]. This led to difficulty. Shortly thereafter, Quesnay [from the Bank of France], in the company of two other experts, Pirelli from Italy and Francqui from Belgium waited on Leith-Ross [UK economic advisor] and stated that the French government viewed Snowden's attempt to change the division of the Young Plan as inadmissible. If he did not change his demand, he went on, the French government would convert its sterling into gold and transfer it to Paris. As he tells the story, Leith-Ross rang for a messenger and had the men shown out without a reply. Most opinion holds that the serious British gold losses of August and September, which amounted to $45 million, were the result of capital flows to New York after the Federal Reserve discount rate was finally raised. On the other showing, the words "ridiculous and grotesque" led to French conversions in London and forced the Bank of England to put up its discount rate. This, rather than the failure of the Hatry companies, triggered off the rise in the Bank of England discount rate and the collapse of the New York stock market."

"[footnote]: Schmidt, who was present at the The Hague as a German interpreter, claims that ridicule et grotesque is an inexact translation of "ridiculous and grotesque". The latter expression could be used in the House of Commons; the former would not be accepted in the Chamber of Deputies... When I happened to recount this story for Rene David, a french professor of international law, he extended it. He had been in London at the time, and he said that the French interpreter, realizing his mistake, apologized the next day and offered the press a correction. "Ridiculous", he explained, meant "laughable", "funny" or "amusing", while "grotesque" meant "bizaare", "curious" or "original". He therefore should have translated "ridiculous and grotesque" as amusant et original."
A cautionary tale for translators everywhere!

(Post title of course alluding to this book, possibly on a bargain table in a bookstore near you, and very much worth reading. Ahamed notes that ridicule et grotesque implies "bad faith and utter stupidity," and adds that Chéron "sent his seconds to demand an apology -- the French were only just weaning themselves off the practice of dueling.")

1 comment: