Famous Mistranslations in History

The Greek word for jar does not translate to the Latin word for box.

There are various mistranslations that have been passed down through centuries of history, and some are now heavily embedded in popular culture. Are you aware of the mistranslations regarding the phrases ‘Pandora’s box’ and ‘Let them eat cake’?

Pandora’s Box

The original phrase is in Greek, and Pandora’s ‘box’ is actually Pandora’s jar.

This mistranslation is attributed to Erasmus, who changes the Greek word πίθος (jar) to the Latin word pyxis (box) in his translation.

In Greek mythology, Pandora, the first human woman, opens a jar that contains various evils, and its toxic contents then spread across the world, inflicting themselves on humanity.

Let Them Eat Cake

The original phrase is in French: Qu’ils mangent de la brioche (Let them eat brioche). One can argue that when translating from French to English at the time of the mistranslation, the translator was concerned that the English may not have know what a brioche is, and so decided to substitute the word using the English word cake, which is another sweet pastry.

In the popular culture of the Anglosphere, the phrase ‘Let them eat cake’ is attributed to Marie-Antoinette during the prelude to the French Revolution even though it’s highly unlikely that she uttered it. A famous example when the French phrase occurs in print is in Rousseau’s Confessions, which was published when Marie-Antoinette was not yet an adult.

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Shay Chu

Shay Chu

Product Designer | Multilingual | Fan of the Oxford Comma & Oxford Spelling | LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/shaychu Portfolio: https://shaychu.com