Riblet#45: Mind Your Language

“In the municipality of Ourense, people who are not alive are forbidden from meeting together both indoors and outside.”  


This update to coronavirus restrictions was posted last week on the website of A Xunta – the regional government of Galicia in north-west Spain.  The error allegedly occurred in translating from the original Galician into Castilian Spanish (the regional government maintains its site in both languages). Predictably, it went viral.


When anything is published, there is the risk of error and misinterpretation.  A simple check by someone who has not written the communication can pick up errors in language and interpretation.  It was not reported whose job in the regional government that was, but it would be interesting to know if they still have it.


This problem is neither unique nor new.


In the ancient world, Croesus of Lydia sent an envoy to the Oracle at Delphi asking whether or not he should attack Persia before the increasingly belligerent and expansionist Persian Empire attacked him.  The message came back: “If Croesus goes to war, he will destroy a great empire.”  Croesus thought this meant that he would defeat and destroy Persia, however it was his own empire that was destroyed by his actions – the Oracle did not lie, it was just not very clear.


The second amendment to the United States’ Constitution is commonly referred to as “the right to bear arms”.  The complete text is as follows:
“A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.’
The commas make the statement grammatically nonsensical.  At the time, the infant republic had no standing army and so in time of need people could be called up to the militia and they would need to be able to provide their own weapons – that is believed to be the intention of the second amendment.


For the regional government of Galicia, the consequence is that it has been made a laughing stock for a short period of time.  For Croesus, it cost him his empire.  For the USA, the consequences are seen daily.


Data Sources: La Región (Ourense newspaper), WikipediaThe Constitution of the United States of America

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