Caillte san aistriúchán

That's "lost in translation" in Gaelic. At least, that's what Google Translate tells me. Also, 7 other things worth your time.

A state trooper stops a woman for speeding and illegally tinted windows.

The trooper grows suspicious. Little things, but they add up. Her ignition key has no other keys on the keychain, there are two cell phones resting in the car’s center console, and there’s “a strong odor of air freshener.”

That’s all it takes; he wants to search her car for drugs. But, he has a problem. He needs her consent.

Cops can use all kinds of verbal gymnastics to get people to agree to otherwise unlawful searches, but he speaks only English; she speaks only Spanish.

Problem solved, the trooper thinks, as he pulls up Google Translate on his personal cell phone.

  • What the trooper says into Translate: “I want to search your car.”

  • What Translate actually spits out, in Spanish, according to an FBI linguist who later watches the body cam footage and testifies: “I like to search the car to make sure everything is OK.”

There’s a big difference, a court agreed recently, throwing out evidence that had been discovered during the ensuing unconstitutional search (“a large package of fentanyl”), and with it, the woman’s criminal conviction.

Maybe this is one of those cases where, as a cop friend of mine once put it, “the process is the punishment,” and the woman winds up looking at this as a literal “get out of free card,” and finds a way to get out of the fentanyl business.

That would be nice. What we can say for sure however, is that these kinds of translation errors happen constantly. Only, most of the time, there are no body cameras and FBI linguists and courts around to decode them for us.

Take, for example, this year’s runaway Netflix hit: Squid Game, a “survival drama series,” from South Korea, which most non-Koreans watch with one-inch subtitles enabled.

As podcaster Youngmi Mayer points out (she speaks both languages fluently), the English subtitles are so far off from the original Korean script that it’s almost as if English speakers are watching another movie entirely.

(Her TikTok explanation is here.)

Of course, it’s not just traffic stops and blockbuster international Netflix offerings. In fact, I started writing this thinking I’d be discussing a new phenomenon thanks to technology, but the truth is history is rife with translation mistakes.

A few examples (compiled by the BBC a while back):

  • Nikita Khruschev didn’t actually say “we will bury you” in the sense that the Soviets would kill capitalists, as newspapers reported around the world; his true meaning was more along the lines of “we are confident we will outlast you.” (Granted, wrong.)

  • President Jimmy Carter gave a speech in Poland in which the interpreter mistranslated him as having said that he had arrived recently from the United States, “never to return,” and that he looked forward to seeing Poland’s “private parts,” when I guess he really just said he was happy to be there and get to know more about Poland.

  • “More of a misunderstanding than a mistranslation, one often-repeated phrase might have been reinforced by racial stereotypes. During Richard Nixon’s visit to China in 1972, Chinese premier Zhou Enlai famously said it was ‘too early to tell’ when evaluating the effects of the French Revolution. He was praised for his sage words, seen as reflecting Chinese philosophy; yet he was actually referring to the May 1968 events in France.”

One more, which is fun, from The Week. I have never been to Japan so please feel free to fact-check this one for me:

  • “In the '50s, when chocolate companies began encouraging people to celebrate Valentine's Day in Japan, a mistranslation from one company gave people the idea that it was customary for women to give chocolate to men on the holiday. And that's what they do to this day. On February 14, the women of Japan shower their men with chocolate hearts and truffles, and on March 14 the men return the favor. An all-around win for the chocolate companies!”

I apologize if I don’t wrap this up with as nice a bow as I usually try to, but I want to make sure I take the opportunity to include video of this scene with Bill Murray from the movie Lost In Translation, along with this link to a translation of what is actually being said in the scene.

Oh, and a post-script on the “do the police really have my consent to search my car?” question: As a no-longer-practicing attorney and the son of a criminal defense lawyer, my advice is simply never, ever, ever to consent to a search.

Also, don’t get involved with transporting large packages of illegal drugs, either. And maybe don’t tint your windows. But do study another language.

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Thanks for reading, as always. Photo: Wikimedia. Want to see all my mistakes? Click here.