Mistranslation Monday

Mistranslation Monday... Farewell to our

Today, we bid farewell to former UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, or as many remember her, Britain's "Iron Lady," or is that "woman" or "maiden"? Interestingly, the story behind Ms. Thatcher's favorite soubriquet is a story of tongues tied and language crossed.

On Jan. 24, 1976, the Soviet propaganda outlet known as Красная Звезд ("Red Star") published an unremarkable article about the up-and-coming British politician Margaret Thatcher. She had taken leadership of the U.K. conservative party, then the opposition party, less than a year earlier and had earned a reputation as an anticommunist crusader.

After claiming, in one of her speeches, that the Russians were aiming for world domination, the Russian paper carried the headline “Железная Дама Угрожает” ("Iron Woman Launches Threat")  which then-Reuters bureau chief Robert Evans more respectfully translated as “Iron Lady Wields Threats.” 

Interestingly, the article's author, Yuri Gavrilov asserted that Thatcher was "known by her compatriots as the Iron Woman," even though that term had never previously been applied to her. It is still unclear whether this was a complete fabrication, or based on rumors that some Britons had called Thatcher an “iron maiden,” in reference to the medieval torture device, or whether there might be some truth to those rumors.

In the absence of other news, Evans, wrote from Moscow, “British Tory leader Margaret Thatcher was today dubbed ‘the Iron Lady’ by the Soviet Defense Ministry newspaper Red Star.” The phrase immediately caught on in the British press.

It seems worth noting that there was a slight "upgrading" in the language used to describe Thatcher, from the Russian "Iron Woman"(Железная Дама)  to the British “Iron Lady” (Железная леди), and how this simple change in register during  translation sparked the universal moniker that marked Thatcher's entire political career, having emerged from a Soviet source intent on insult.

In fact, this mere use of "Lady" rather than "Woman" was wittily employed at Thatcher's service in one of her speeches, as she noted, "Yes, I am an Iron Lady. After all, it wasn't a bad thing to be an Iron Duke," she said in a reference to the Duke of Wellington who defeated Napoleon at Waterloo.

Hardly minding the inadvertent Soviet comparison with the great English general, "if that's how they wish to interpret my defense of values and freedoms fundamental to our way of life", she added, to rapturous applause.

Mistranslation Monday - Killer Translations

Linguists tend to revel in the absurd mistranslations that blow across their desks on a daily basis -- silly advertisements, gaffes, total gibberish -- but I was recently forwarded a fascinating article by Dr. Glenn Flores, "Language Barriers to Health Care in the United States," in the New England Journal of Medicine  on "killer" translations (in the literal sense and not being facetious here, for once).

In the article, Flores recounts the case of a Spanish-speaking 18-year-old who stumbled home and told his girlfriend he was "intoxicado" (nauseated), which the paramedics then took to mean "intoxicated," and the patient was subsequently treated for an alcohol and drug overdose. However, after more than 36 hours in the hospital, the patient was re-evaluated and diagnosed with a blood clot in his brain, which resulted in quadriplegia and a subsequent $71 million malpractice settlement.

Despite the National Health Law Program dictating that each state must now have a minimum of two legal provisions related to language access in the context of healthcare services, language barriers still clearly present an impediment to effective care with costly -- and potentially fatal -- consequences.

"Sitting back and just saying, 'God, I just wish these people would learn English' isn't enough. A hospital has got to do more than that if we are going to continue to saves lives."

I couldn't have said it better myself.

Follow the jump for a full interview on the NEJM site with Dr. Flores.