The Americans have a peculiar Thanksgiving tradition. On Wednesday President Barack Obama “pardoned” a couple of turkeys, who will be spared the Thanksgiving slaughter. The names of the lucky pair were “Honest” and “Abe”, in honour of US President Abraham Lincoln. The tradition of pardoning turkeys is supposed to go back to Lincoln himself, whose youngest son Tad refused to allow the family to eat the Christmas turkey one year. The turkey, named “Jack” was then “pardoned” by the President.
In China, when Wednesday’s turkey story was translated the translators did not recognise the shortening of Abraham to single-syllable “Abe” and wrote it out in the Chinese characters that are usually used to refer to Japan’s two-syllable Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (pronounced a-bay).
Chinese readers found it was a bit of a chuckle that the Japanese Prime Minister’s name had apparently been given to a bird. Japan’s perceived slowness to apologise for war crimes committed against the Chinese people before and during World War Two still rankles with the Chinese. Shinzo Abe himself is known for visits to the Yasukuni Shrine, which contains war graves, including those of some Japanese seen as war criminals by the Chinese.
“Abe is just a chicken,” wrote one commentator, and copies of the faulty translation circulated faster than other stories which had translated the turkey’s name correctly.
Guess how the translation had been arrived at? Via a web translation system. Oh well – you can’t expect a machine to understand cultural references in the way that a human translator would have. At least it gave Chinese readers a chance to have a laugh at Shinzo Abe’s expense.