In the first part of this post , we discussed some rather serious translation errors. In part two, the consequences become more serious. How? Let’s find out.
A Nuanced Mistranslation Dropped a Nuclear Bomb on Japan
Translation between diplomats is a high-level job, and never more important than during war.
Japan was in a bad place in 1945; World War II had incinerated the country, and it was logistically unable to continue fighting. Allied Forces thereby put forward the Potsdam Declaration to both the government and country, which demanded Japan accept its terms of surrender or face “prompt and utter destruction.”
Premier Kantarō Suzuki needed to respond, but the Japanese press wanted his response quickly. As reported in the Japanese press, Suzuki said: “The government of Japan does not consider [the proposal as] having any crucial value. We simply mokusatsu suru. The only alternative for us is to be determined to continue our fight to the end.”
The key here is “mokusatsu.”
The word can mean “no comment,” in the sense that the government still needed time to formulate a response. This was the nuance that the translation of the text missed, because the other meaning of the word was “to ignore in contempt.”
The Allies took this bad translation, and the United States consequently dropped two nuclear bombs on Japan, killing hundreds of thousands.
02. The USSR Accidentally Threatens the USA
World War II brought nuclear bombs into the world, and the Cold War almost used them. The USSR—Soviet Russia—and the United States both fought for influence. They also both possessed apocalyptic nuclear power. What kept the world safe was the knowledge that if one side used a bomb, the other would use a bomb, too.
In 1956, Soviet First Secretary Nikita Khrushchev gave a boastful speech at the Polish embassy in Moscow, stating “My vas pokhoronim!” to diplomats. His translator, Viktor Sukhodrev, translated this as, “We will bury you.”
This caused a diplomatic kerfuffle, as some interpreted the statement to mean the USSR would nuke the US; twelve NATO country envoys even left the room. Luckily, cooler heads prevailed and it emerged that Khrushchev had intended to say that the USSR would outlast other countries—i.e., to bury them by being at their funerals.
01. A Berry Goes on a Very Big Adventure
Some mistakes defy reality.
Consider one Arabic translation of a particular classic of American literature. Reading the book for the first time, you might perhaps be forgiven for thinking that a berry, after arriving to Missouri from Finland, goes on wild adventures; this berry even commands a raft. You may be surprised to find this berry come face-to-face with important issues of the day, like slavery; it even frees a slave. Why, you may be surprised to know that the creator of this berry is none other than the author of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Mark Twain!
Astute bibliophiles will have guessed the novel referenced. At some point in time, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was translated quite literally as (مغامرات التوت الفنلندي): The Adventures of the Finnish Berry. Extraordinarily, this particular printing precedes Google Translate . The mistake would even make its way into the Arabic subtitles of the Family Guy episode “Fast Times at Buddy Cianci High.”
And there we are—six examples of erroneous translation with far-reaching consequences! If you’d like your own translation (but error-free), get in touch with Gibran today