"Neanderthal Baby Plot" Was A Translation Error

The story made for great headlines, and spread across the Internet like wildfire. The Daily Mail screamed: “Wanted: ‘Adventurous woman’ to give birth to Neanderthal man – Harvard professor seeks mother for cloned cave baby,” and other publications quickly followed suit.

According to the stories, Harvard professor George Church not only believed that he could reconstruct Neanderthal DNA, he was also actively seeking a woman to carry a cloned Neanderthal baby to term.

It sounded like something out of a Hollywood movie- too sensational to be true. Naturally, it was. According to Professor Church, the Daily Mail’s article was based on an interview he did in German with Der Spiegel, and something may have gotten lost in translation along the way.

Professor Church told the Boston Herald that he never said he was planning to clone a Neanderthal in the immediate future. He only said that the technology to do is nearly perfected and theoretically, it would be possible to do within his lifetime.

“I’m certainly not advocating it,” he told the newspaper. “I’m saying, if it is technically possible someday, we need to start talking about it today.”

How did his words get so twisted? It wasn’t Der Spiegel’s fault, as they provided a correct English translation of the interview.

In an interview with iMediaEthics, Professor Church suggested that the Daily Mail either didn’t wait for or didn’t look for an approved English translation before botching the translation of the original German interview and running the story. iMediaEthics, on the other hand, implies that the Daily Mail may have simply made up the quotes.

This little mishap definitely highlights the importance of having a competent translator available  before your organization ends up with its foot firmly planted in its mouth. It also highlights the importance of double-checking things when you’ve translated a story yourself and the result seems too good to be true. As Johann Grolle of Der Spiegel told iMediaEthics,

“To my knowledge nobody contacted us to fact check these quotes (In fact a simple way to fact check them would be to just check our international web page instead).”


4 replies
  1. Steven L. Johnson
    Steven L. Johnson says:

    Well, here’s what google translate says he said. 🙂

    Church wants to use that knowledge to human cells in the laboratory to adapt gradually to those of a Neanderthal. The necessary technology currently developing it in his lab. As a surrogate for the so created the first Neanderthal clone it then applies to “find an adventurous female human”.

  2. Jeff Whittaker
    Jeff Whittaker says:

    Thanks Steven for the GT version. The problem is that they (incorrectly) used the subjunctive form “bräuchte” which in your machine translation corresponds to the word “find”, but really means “need” or “require”. When placed in the subjunctive, it means something like “all we would need in a hypothetical situation should we ever consider attempting this in the future would be an adventurous human female.” Because this subjunctive form is deemed incorrect by some and hence rarely used, it is likely that whoever translated it did not accurately convey that the scientist was only postulating what would be necessary if and when anyone would want to attempt this.


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