A Mistranslation Thanksgiving from Denver to Berlin

by Translation Guy on December 5, 2010

WARNING: Content may contain links to mistranslations of Nazi bunker dialog.

Being the big shot around here, you would think that I would be able to make my own travel arrangements. But the “powers that be” mixed up my trip to the ATA meeting at Denver. Gavin, looking across a splintered table at me in his smelly poncho, asked, “So yer want to go meet your translators?” as if I were going out in the field to collect cow patties. So anyway, long story short, I couldn’t go. And so I missed the translators’ donnybrook, when a room full of vendors got a “DO NOT REPLY” e-mail from Lionbridge telling them they were talking a 5% pay cut for the next quarter. Talk about poking the hornet’s nest. Then swarms of blistering rants in the blogosphere, whacking the Hyenabridge meme like a pack of possessed carpet beaters. So pile on, right? Says so right here on the TranslationGuy charter. But in the blog game, when you are late off the mark, you need something. Then I came across one of those “Hitler Bunker” videos, with another goofy set of “pointed” subtitles. Why not right an imaginary version of the meeting where Lionbridge executives faced up to another quarterly revenue retreat by burning their supply train!? A bad idea on two counts, one that it was just a bad idea, and two because it’s those kinds of bad ideas that I find incredibly distracting. So I will now derail this post.

“The scene is Adolf Hitler’s bunker. The Führer stares at a map, surrounded by fearful generals. As they deliver bad news, he removes his spectacles with a trembling hand, the fury rising in him like a volcano. Speaking guttural German, his unkempt hair flopping over his forehead, Hitler explodes in a hysterical rage about Cristiano Ronaldo leaving Manchester United. Or about his crushing defeat in the Glasgow East byelection. Or about his stolen car, his Xbox Live console, or just about anything else you can imagine,” write David Smith and Rowan Walker.

There are thousands of these clips. Actor Bruno Ganz, playing Hitler, chews up the scenery in an arresting performance of desperate fury. By collective agreement, this particular bit has become the blank slate on which amateur subtitlers with time on their hands can grind whatever axe they wish.

The disconnect between scene and subtitle is where the humor lies. And the humor is what drives the popularity, the protein sheath of the viral video. In the version below, the doomed dictator is furious that (in the subtitles anyway), “My rants will forever be remembered only in those damn parodies.”

German speakers are inoculated from amusement by comprehension; all they can hear is the grim calculus of defeat (unless they turn down the volume). We non-German speakers, in the absence of understanding, mistranslating as if looking into a mirror, we tell the story as we see it, and not as what lies behind the looking glass.

Sorry about that little detour to war-torn Berlin. Back to Lionbridge next time.


  1. Gone Native says:

    But not all of us are non German speakers, so you have a problem. As subtitles are generally bad translations anyway, I tend to put a folded newspaper in front of the bottom part of my tv. I like hearing two English pilots in a II World War movie. (German, but subtitled in English). After dropping their bombs on Berlin, trying to hit the Fuhrer Bunker, one says to the other: “Jetzt fliegen wir zuruck in die Heimat.” The subtitles just read: “Now we fly back home”

    • Ken says:

      I don’t get it Gone Native. What does “Jetzt fliegen wir zuruck in die Heimat” really mean if not “now we fly back home?” Maybe the subtitlers translated it on Google same as me.

      • Gone Native says:

        Your google translation is more or less correct, but in the III Reich-era, the expression “Die Heimat”, The Homeland, referred to the German sphere of influence only, e.i. the Germanic part of Europe. Not including England or Brittain.
        To German speakers, this is funny in a black sort of way, and difficult to translate.

        • Ken says:

          Got it. As in “Homeland Security,” like when you get the full monty pat-down at the airport, also funny in a black sort of way.

  2. benkingery says:

    It’s about time we see a leader in the industry call these b@st@rds out. Thanks for having the balls sir.

  3. Louis Harvey says:

    Poking the hornet’s nest indeed Ken!

  4. You go Ken.

  5. Much respect Ken.

  6. shg says:

    Awesome Ken, just awesome!

  7. Judy Schultz says:

    That’s great stuff.

  8. Sheryl Diaz says:

    Loving it!

LiveZilla Live Chat Software