In Iran, the phrase marg bar Amrica ( مرگ بر آمریکا) is often chanted at rallies and seen on signs held by unhappy protesters. The phrase is most commonly translated literally as “Death to America”, but it actually means ”Down with America”. Hooman Majd, a former interpreter for Iranian President Ahmadinejad, has explained that “Death to America” is far too harsh of a translation. As Majd pointed out, Ahmadinejad also handed out potatoes in exchange for votes, after which protesters chanted ”Marg bar seeb zameeni!” They were literally saying “Death to potatoes”, but it’s pretty far fetched to assume that their intention was to kill the spuds.The above excerpt is from Jost Zetzsche’s book, Found in Translation, which mentions a myriad of instances of literal translations and interpretations gone wrong because of the fine nuances associated with cultural idioms and values.
One of the most engaging accounts of a literal translation is described in Hooman Majd’s book, The Ayatollah Begs To Differ.