When a single mistranslation can change the world - Horned Moses
It is commonly thought that translation mistakes are ordinary and most of the time insignificant. We think that in the worst of the cases a translator could lose his/her job or wipe out any possibility for an advantageous contract. We have no idea how a mistranslation could be dangerous.
According to the book “111 errori di traduzione che hanno cambiato il mondo”- written by R.G. Capuano – a single mistake could cost a life, overthrow a government, make up religious belief or slaughter millions of people.
One of the most famous and curious mistake was related with the biblical figure of Moses. In the book of Esodo it is told about his ascension to Mount Sinai where he received the famous Tablets of the Law. What is really interesting about this episode – concerning its translation – concerns his aspect when he met his brother Aronne. In fact, Moses was not aware that his face was radiant because of the light of God.
The word “radiant” is the key.
As we know nowadays, the Hebraic alphabet does not possess vowels and – like the modern Arabic, it is composed mainly by consonants. The differences in sounds are highlighted by small symbols that are not always evident.
In the old Hebraic language, radiant was “qaran” althought it was written “qrn”. Even if the context was really clear, Saint Gerolamo chose another way of translating this words. He decided that “qrn” was not coming from “qaran” but from “qeren” that means horn.
The face of Moses turned into horned instead of being radiant. But why did Saint Gerolamo opted for this translation instead for the most logical one?
In the ancient time, horns were a symbol of power and this “knowledge of the world – one of the most important skill that a translator needs to possess – misled him.
This mistranslation influence many people for almost 8 centuries.
One of the most important artists that was influences by this translation was Michelangelo. In his statue of Moses, we can spot two small horns, coming out from his long hair.
Another important fact that could be led to this mistranslation is the idea that Christians had about the Jews.
It is reported that in the middle age, they were usually associated with the Devil and in various countries – such as Germany- they wear forced to wear a hat that reminded of a horn.
Naturally, history teaches us that human being commit atrocities using pretexts. In this case, if the mistranslation never occurred, probably the people would have found another pretext to torture the Jews, but we will never know.