We recently blogged about translating works of literature to bring them to a wider audience and, of course, this is a profession that has existed for generations. For instance, the versions of the great religious texts we are familiar with today arise from scholars interpreting the originals and translating them.

Indeed, translations of ancient texts can offer us a real insight into our cultural past. However, the practice also comes with all the pitfalls that translators of contemporary texts face.

The end of the world is nigh

A case in point is the Mayan Long Calendar – a particularly relevant example as we count down to the end of the year. In fact, a misinterpretation of this culture’s calendar has resulted in a widespread theory that the world will end in 2012.

The Mesoamerican Long Count calendar was used by ancient civilisations in pre-Columbian Central America as a way of measuring time periods exceeding 52 years. The reason for the doomsday prophesies is that this calendar comes to an end on December 21st 2012.

Fuelling the panic is the fact that this will also be the date of the winter solstice, when the sun is aligned with the centre of the Milky Way, where many scientists believe there is a black hole. Such was the accuracy with which the Maya civilisation predicted solar events, conspiracy theorists argue that the ancient people could also foretell the end of the world.

When it comes to how this will happen, one theory suggests that as the sun aligns with the centre of the Milky Way and the black hole that sits there, the Earth’s poles will shift. This will cause natural disasters like earthquakes and tidal waves to rock the planet and wipe out much of life on it. Another belief is that a mysterious planet will appear in Earth’s orbit and collide with our planet. And all of this just because the Maya calendar ends in 2012.

Translation: taking liberties

In fact, what the Mayas predicted was simply that a new era will begin. They treated the date with little more planetary significance than you or I might place on recycling our 2012 calendar at the end of this year and starting a new one for 2013.

All of this worry has been caused by a widespread misinterpretation of the Maya culture, largely by westerners. Some present day interpretations claim the end of the calendar is a sign the Maya civilisation believed time and the world would also end. Yet if they placed any emphasis on the date at all, it is likely they believed one of their gods would return rather than that humanity would be wiped out. Indeed, by carving the date into stone where everyone could see it, the Maya people would be prepared for their deity’s arrival.

It’s little wonder the Maya have been misinterpreted. The tablet of stone, found in the Mexican state of Tabasco, that bares the 2012 date was cracked, which made translating it difficult. Another issue is that in order to translate the ancient artefact correctly, an extensive knowledge of the Maya civilisation and its culture is necessary. Finally, the doomsday prophesies have been fuelled by people taking liberties with their interpretation.

Because the information is so minimal, some have chosen to fill in the gaps. It’s this, more than anything, which has resulted in the Maya civilisation being seen as a prophet of the end of days. However, when Apolinario Chile Pixtun, a Mayan elder, says: “I came back from England last year and, man, they had me fed up with this [end of the world] stuff,” you know you don’t have to start stockpiling tinned food in your under stairs cupboard quite yet.

The 2012 end of days panic could serve as a useful lesson to translators. To avoid misleading readers, a good translator should:

  1. Only work from the best quality source.
  2. Make sure they thoroughly study the context surrounding the source, such as where and when it was written, by who and what it’s about, before attempting to translate it.
  3. Never drastically alter the translation to suit their purpose.

If you think ignoring one of these good codes of practice won’t do any harm, remember you could be responsible for starting the rumour that the end of the world is nigh.

Image credits: Tim Green, Kim-bodia & Sackit67