One of my favorite things in the world is old maps of the planet Mars, like the one Neville shows Mr. Jones.
Until the 1970s, it was widely believed that Mars was a planet much like Earth, though considerably older. The astronomers who first studied its red face were under the impression that they could see a network of canals running across its surface, waterways that no doubt connected crumbling, decadent cities. The idea that there were intelligent beings living on Mars–beings much more advanced than humanity–was obvious to everyone.
If only it were true.
The canals never existed, of course. They were a creation of the popular imagination, and in fact of mistranslation. Giovanni Schiaperelli, the Italian astronomer, made a wonderful map of Mars during the “Great Opposition” of 1877. He named several features of the planet, identifying them as seas and continents. He noticed what appeared to be long, straight features which he named canali. The word in Italian means “channels”, but when his works were translated into English, they were called “canals”. And thus a wonderful dream was born.
Schiaperelli never intended to suggest that what he saw was anything but a natural feature. Canals, though, are made things. They are constructed by intelligent beings. And from this simple translator’s error, the existence of Martians followed ineluctably.
Without this mistake, we would not have the tripods of War of the Worlds. We would not have the Heliumite Martians of Edgar Rice Burroughs. And a young David Wellington might never have begun to dream of other worlds, or of their strange inhabitants. If you enjoyed Episode Three, please note this. People make translation errors all the time. Usually they’re annoying, sometimes they’re harmful.
Sometimes they create magic.