Mistranslated Dates in Literature

by Frank Fischer

(This posting is about a phenomenon that I can only partly explain. It seems to be more than just a couple of random incidents. Maybe somebody else has some hints?) (Update Oct 3, 2016: Jürgen Hermes closely examined the “Count of Monte Cristo” example and explains some of the “mistranslations”, scroll to the bottom of the page for more info.)

When translating numbers and dates, strange things happen at times. Some of them are still explicable, one of which is the following. Take “Othello”, Act I, beginning of Scene 3 (Wikisource), just look at the numbers:

There is no composition in these news
That gives them credit.

Indeed, they are disproportion’d;
My letters say a hundred and seven galleys.

And mine, a hundred and forty.

And mine, two hundred:

Here’s how Wolf Graf Baudissin translated the passage into German (Gutenberg-DE):

In diesen Briefen fehlt Zusammenhang,
Der sie glaubwürdig machte.

Jawohl, sie weichen voneinander ab;
Mein Schreiben nennt mir hundertsechs Galeeren.

Und meines hundertvierzig.

Meins zweihundert.

Ok, none of the characters seems to know the exact number of ships anyway, so why not translate 106 instead of 107? Voss also translated 106 (Google Books), while Wieland sticked to the 107 (Wikisource).

As insinuated before, that one’s easy to solve. Wieland chose to translate “Othello” in prose, the other two wanted to stick to Shakespeare’s blank verse. So for metrical reasons, they had to get rid of the second syllable of “sieben”, and how do you do that? Make it a “sechs”. Things like that happen a lot in metrical translations. (And I have to thank Thomas Efer for this and many other examples.)

So far, so good. Let’s now move from wrong numbers to wrong dates.

Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde

At the beginning of chapter nine of R. L. Stevenson’s infamous novella, Dr Lanyon receives a letter from Jekyll. Lanyon says he received it on the 9th of January and that he had dined with Jekyll the day before, so obviously, the letter must have been written on the 8th or 9th of January. Yet it says in all editions of Stevenson’s text: “10th December, 18—” (Wikisource). This inconsistency has received some coverage (like here) and, for one, has been corrected in the Spanish translation which is also on Wikisource, the letter there dates from “9 de enero de 18…”. The German translation on Gutenberg-DE chose to omit the dating to mitigate the temporal inconsistency.

So these changes are still utterly explainable. But there are other cases.

The Count of Monte Cristo

I’m aware that the doctrines of literary translations changed over the centuries, and this is really a research field of its own. But the oddities I want to talk about go beyond that. Let’s have a look at the opening sentence of “Le Comte de Monte-Christo” by Alexandre Dumas:

Le 24 février 1815, la vigie de Notre-Dame de la Garde signala le trois-mâts le Pharaon, venant de Smyrne, Trieste et Naples. (Wikisource)

The Spanish translation goes along with this, no problem:

El 24 de febrero de 1815, el vigía de Nuestra Señora de la Guarda dio la señal de que se hallaba a la vista el bergantín El Faraón procedente de Esmirna, Trieste y Nápoles. (Wikisource)

Yet the German translation by Max Pannwitz, hosted on Gutenberg-DE, starts with this sentence:

Am 25. Februar 1815 fuhr der Dreimaster Pharao langsam und wie zögernd in den Hafen von Marseille.

This is in line with an earlier translation by August Zoller (see Google Books).

And the Polish translation on Wikisource has this:

W słonecznym i bardzo ciepłym dniu 27 lutego 1815 r. dano z wieży kościoła Notre Dame de la Garde, w Marsylji, hasło, zapowiadające powrót z podróży do Smyrny, Tryjestu i Neapolu — trójżaglowca “Faraon”.

Now what? 24th, 25th, 27th of February? I don’t see any reason to change the date of the arrival of the ship.

This is also not the fault of buggy OCR like in the case of the (non-existant) underreprentation of the 11th day of the month in the Google Ngram corpus.

Anna Karenina

Let’s check on Tolstoy, “Anna Karenina”, Part 3, Chapter 23, which in its original shape looks like this (Wikisource):

В понедельник было обычное заседание комиссии 2-го июня.

Yet the German translation hosted on Gutenberg-DE has this:

Montags war die gewöhnliche Sitzung der Kommission vom zweiten Juli.

2nd of June becomes 2nd of July. Which could be an honest and simple mistake, because of the similarity of the month names.

Let’s stay with the same book and jump to Part 4, Chapter 6, first sentence:

Алексей Александрович одержал блестящую победу в заседании комиссии семнадцатого августа, (…). (Wikisource)

The Spanish translation on Wikisource has this:

Karenin obtuvo una brillante victoria en la sesión celebrada por la Comisión el 1 de agosto, (…)

17th of August becomes 1st of August. Explanation could be simple again: Maybe the translator just forgot a number here?

This is also not a Julian/Gregorian calendar issue. The Julian calendar was 12 days behind in the 19th century, which doesn’t explain the difference between the two dates.

A Descent into the Maelström

Next example, Poe’s “Descent into the Maelström”, where it says:

It was on the tenth day of July, 18—, a day which the people of this part of the world will never forget—for it was one in which blew the most terrible hurricane that ever came out of the heavens. (Wikisource)

A Spanish translation goes like this:

Dentro de pocos días se cumplirán tres años desde que sucedió lo que voy a relataros. Era el 10 de agosto de 18—, día que la gente de este lado del mundo jamás olvidará, porque se desató el huracán más formidable que jamás envió el cielo. (Wikisource)

July? August!

Sherlock Holmes

Let’s do some Sherlock Holmes. The Hound of the Baskervilles!

Dr. Mortimer drew a folded newspaper out of his pocket.
“Now, Mr. Holmes, we will give you something a little more recent. This is the Devon County Chronicle of May 14th of this year. (…)” (gutenberg.org)

The same passage in Spanish translation:

El doctor Mortimer se sacó del bolsillo un periódico doblado.
–Ahora, señor Holmes, voy a leerle una noticia un poco más reciente, publicada en el Devon County Chronicle del 14 de junio de este año. (…) (biblioteca.org.ar)

May? June! – Another shift of one month when translating from English to Spanish, maybe a pattern? Well, maybe not. Let’s have some Stendhal:

The Charterhouse of Parma

Le 7 mars 1815, les dames étaient de retour, depuis l’avant-veille, d’un charmant petit voyage de Milan ; elles se promenaient dans la belle allée de platanes, récemment prolongée sur l’extrême bord du lac. (Wikisource)

Which, in a Spanish translation, looks like this:

El 7 de mayo de 1815 hacía dos días que las señoras habían vuelto de un precioso viajecito a Milán; estaban paseándose por la hermosa avenida de plátanos que había sido prolongada hacía poco tiempo hasta el borde mismo del lago. (edu.mec.gub.uy)

March? May!

Jules Verne

Le 29 mai de cette année-là, un berger surveillait son troupeau à la lisière d’un plateau verdoyant, au pied du Retyezat, qui domine une vallée fertile, boisée d’arbres à tiges droites, enrichie de belles cultures. (Wikisource)

The same passage in Spanish:

El 19 de mayo de aquel año, un pastor apacentaba su rebaño a la orilla de un verde prado, al pie del Retyezat, que domina un valle fértil, cubierto de árboles de rama-je recto y enriquecido con bellas plantaciones. (biblioteca.org.ar)

29th? 19th!


For all we know, this last example could be another honest mistake (mistyping a number, happens). Maybe all these examples can be traced back to simple mistakes that go unnoticed by the common reader (unless you’re part of a research project whose purpose it is to extract dates from literary corpora :-)… Anyway, we got more findings like this. You’ll find some examples in TIWOLI, our app for Android and iOS. We didn’t dare to correct wrong dates, we wanted to preserve them as they were. After all, that’s how every reader of these elder translations encountered them.

Many of the translations are from the 19th or early 20th century when transations didn’t yet meet our idea of a proper, authentic translation. For example, the first German translation of Huxley’s “Brave New World” changed the location from “London” to “Berlin” (which was authorised by the author, by the way; but this wouldn’t pull through nowadays, I guess).

Some sort of weird adaptation could be the reason for some of the above-cited examples. But I really don’t know. The question is: Are all these examples plain mistakes? Or are there reasons for the way those dates were mistranslated?

(For hints, drop me a line on Twitter, via mail, or use the comment field below.)


On October 3rd, Jürgen Hermes published a great follow-up to this post (in German): “Zum Tag der Daten-Einheit”. In which he interprets the “mistranslations” relating to “The Count of Monte Cristo” as “belated copyediting” by German and Polish translators. Especially the Polish translator applied some effort to repair the flawed timeline of the original novel. The same effort might be behind some of the other mistranslations, too. The example from “Jekyll and Hyde” was also pointing into that direction.

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