Lost in Translation

The story goes that when French naturalist Pierre Sonnerat was in Madagascar, he pointed to a large lemur and asked the Malagasy people what it was called. They replied ‘Indri!’ and Sonnerat duly recorded the word. The name stuck and it is still called the indri today. In Malagasy, the word indrý translates as ‘Look, there it is.’

It’s an appealing story and, if true would mean that a humourous mistranslation has been embedded in the animal’s name for over two hundred years (there’s a more dubious story about Joseph Bank’s naming of the kangaroo which supposedly meant either ‘I don’t know,’ ‘Go that way’ or ‘That’s your finger.’) But the more likely explanation is that Sonnerat simply misheard. The Malagasy name for the indri is endrina.

The grizzly bear is often thought to be named due to an aggressive nature and a propensity to mutilate and kill. Hugh Glass, a nineteenth century fur trapper was once mauled by a grizzly before his companions shot it dead. Unconscious and badly injured, he was left in a shallow grave covered with the bear’s pelt. He woke and set his broken leg. The flesh on his back had been ripped off, exposing his ribs. He lay on a rotten log to encourage maggots into the wound which would eat the dead flesh and prevent gangrene. Then, bereft of weapons and food, he crawled and rafted the 320 km to the nearest settlement, arriving six weeks later.

Grizzly means grey, referring to the bear’s hair colour and is unrelated to grisly meaning frightening or gruesome. However, the misunderstanding persists in the bear’s scientific name, Ursus arctus horibilis. In 1815, after examining the specimen brought back with the Lewis and Clarke expedition, George Ord interpreted the word ‘grizzly’ in a report to mean ‘grisly’ and so chose the subspecies name horibilis.

Anyone familiar with the Nintendo character Donkey Kong will know he’s not a donkey. In the original games, he’s a furious ape of the King Kong variety which explains the Kong epithet. A popular explanation for the name is that the Japanese creators intended it to be Monkey Kong but simply used the wrong English word. When Nintendo was sued by Universal Studios for trademark infringement, Donkey Kong’s creator, Shigeru Miyamoto, revealed the origins of the name. He interpreted ‘donkey’ to mean stupid and thought English speakers would understand Donkey Kong to mean ‘stupid ape.’ Despite the loose translations, the success of Donkey Kong saved the struggling company which had begun in 1889 as a manufacturer of playing cards.

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