Aug 12, 2008

Hell, Lost in Translation

Hell Money - Click to enlargeThanks to the internet and to the fact that now traveling is easier we are getting used to have fun with bad translations, mostly from Chinese or Japanese to English.

But mistranslations are older than hell and in this case I mean that almost literally.

What you see here are "Hell Bank Notes" that we bought during a trip to the Far East, if I recall correctly in Hong Kong (but I may be mistaken, don't take my word for it).

Nevertheless, the interesting thing about these bank notes is the mistranslation behind them. According to several sources -our guide during the trip being one-, even when the bills clearly state "Hell Bank Notes" the meaning has nothing to do with our idea of hell.

Apparently, the word hell was introduced to China by Christian missionaries, who trying to convert people to their faith start preaching that all non-Christian Chinese people would "go to hell" upon their death. Through a classic case of misinterpretation, the word "Hell" was understood as the proper English term for the Chinese afterlife and therefore adopted and included in these bills.

Hell Bank Note - Click to enlarge
But the misinterpretations don't end there. The Chinese belief is that when someone dies the spirit of the dead goes to the afterlife, where it lives on, doing much the same things it did in life and it is for that afterlife that they send the money.

The traditional way these bills are "sent" is by being burnt, tossed in the air during the funeral procession or left in the grave. The bills are burnt with other paper objects such as cars, houses, clothing, watches and even mobile phones, so the spirit can live comfortable in the afterlife as s/he used to live before.

Some people believe that burning those bills distracts evil spirits that would take the other goodies for themselves if given the chance: While they chase the cash, the valuable goods pass safely to the intended relative. For this reason, sometimes the "hell money" is explained to westerns as the money the dead need to be able to get some comfort... and here comes the second misinterpration. Because of the word "hell" on them some people misinterpreted the explanation thinking that it was money sent to "bribe" the devil, in case you were going to hell.

What this has anything to do with creativity and innovation? A lot. Words really mean very little without an "environment" or a background that gives them the final meaning. They make sense not so much by themselves but in relation to other words, a historic and even geographical context, and as people do, they can change, evolve or simply mutate. Take them out of context and "new" things can happen; that is also how new ideas are born...

If you are interested in other mistranslations or how some other words have evolved to have a slighlty different meaning, check my postings about slogans or the ones about other words lost in translation.

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