Fact Check

U.N. Mistranslation

A tale of an embarrassing mistranslation at the United Nations.

Published Jan. 12, 2001


Claim:   Mistranslation at the United Nations results in humorous statement.


Origins:   Simultaneous translation — the rendering of a speaker's words into another

language as they are being spoken — can be fraught with peril. A missed syllable, the wrong word, a mere difference in nuance can result in a misunderstanding, or even be taken as an insult. And when the forum is the United Nations, a misinterpretation could even spark an international incident.

Linguist Charles Berlitz relates a humorous yet benign case of simultaneous mistranslation at a U.N. assembly in his book Native Tongues. Since Mr. Berlitz's volume is a veritable treasure trove of linguistic urban legends presented as fact, we offer this anecdote with no claims as to its veracity:

As the African nations continue their progress toward modernization, statements by African delegates to the United Nations tend to underline the abandonment of old tribal ways. One French-speaking African delegate, for example, made this declaration: "Africa no longer erects altars to the gods." (L'Afrique n'érige plus des autels aux dieux.) But the interpreter, thinking that the word autels was hôtels and that aux dieux was odieux, translated the delegate's phrase as "Africa no longer builds horrible hotels." (L'Afrique n'érige plus des hôtels odieux.)

Last updated:   22 December 2011


    Berlitz, Charles.   Native Tongues.

    New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1982.   ISBN 0-448-12336-3   (p. 153).

David Mikkelson founded the site now known as snopes.com back in 1994.

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