Thursday, February 19, 2009

Saving a few dimes while spending a ton

We spent the last few days of our Christmas vacations in Vienna, visiting several of Vienna's many wonderful museums.

Most of the exhibits in the shows bore interesting explanations, often with an English translation. Neither my wife not I know German, though we can sometime puzzle out some simpler texts, but even so we caught a couple of obvious mistranslations:

At the Leopold Museum's show on the Vienna art scene up to 1918 the English translation of a note on the origins of WW I said the Sarajevo assassination was due to the ultimatum issued from Austria to Serbia.

Since the ultimatum of course followed the assassination, either the German original was strangely wrong or the translator had a shaky knowledge of modern history.

At the Belvedere, in the show celebrating Gustav Klimt and the Kunstschau 1908, the English legend under a costume design by Emil Orlik said it was "a design for Shakespeare's 'Das Wintermärchen'". That is, the English label gave Shakespeare's title in German. The correct translation should have been "a costume design for Shakespeare's The Winter Tale", or perhaps "... for a German staging of the Winter Tale".

The problem here is not so much the mistranslations themselves: one can usually get a laugh with some of the mistranslations found in shops or tourist sites around the world. These, at least, have the excuse of being written by people with little knowledge of English for their own little shop.

But when one finds such errors in a city that justly prides itself as one of the foremost cultural capitals of the world, and in shows otherwise set up with much care, it is discouraging to see how little attention is paid to translation, how clearly an afterthought it is, how cheap it is bought. It likely cost more to produce the high-quality lettering proudly displaying such howlers than was paid for the translations themselves.

Major cultural institutions as the Leopold Museum and the Belvedere (and others around the world) should budget a little more, and give more thought to avoid such embarrassing mistakes.


  1. OK or rather not OK, as well as a different spin on WWI historical ‚facts’. As you were at the Untere Belvedere for the Klimt exhibition, rather than das Obere Belvedere, you should or could have wandered into the Orangerie at the other end of the lower wing for the special exhibition of Die Macht des Ornaments where I perused some of the best German-English translations I have ever witnessed at an art exhibition. So good that I made notes.

    E vero, Riccardo.

  2. We visited the Obere Belvedere, but I think that the "Die Macht des Ornaments" show opened later in January, and we left Vienna on January 1.

    But even if we had been able to see it, it would have been difficult (for me) to notice that the English translations were good: I might have noticed that they were well written - but that, in itself, is not a guarantee that they were well translated: to see that they were well translated I would have needed to read German.

    Unfortunately, at least in some instances it is easier to spot mistranslations (the two examples I give in the post could in fact be noticed without reference to the source text) than to see that something is in fact very well translated.


Thank you for your comment!

Unfortunately, comment spam has grown to the point that all comments need to be moderated. All legitimate comments will be published as soon as possible.