Whenever you have millions of people speaking different languages, miss-communication will always be the number one problem. We rely on translators and interpreters to be the go-betweens; the rosetta stones, so to speak, of all the world’s people.
However, these interpreters and translators are human beings, and in being so, are subject to making mistakes. Unfortunately, sometimes these mistakes can result in life-altering consequences.
The following 5 mistranslations showcase some of the biggest blunders ever to be recorded in the pages of history.
5. Mistranslation in the Middle-East
In 2006, President of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad called for Israel to be ‘wiped off the map’.
Or so most people thought.
However, it was later found that this was a careless translation. What Ahmadinejad actually said was, “the regime occupying Jerusalem must vanish from the page of time”. But the damage was already done, and many people got in an uproar about this statement.
Likewise, we see how inaccurate translations of the Qur’an has provided grounds for unnecessarily vicious warfare. The word Jihad has come to be understood to mean holy war in recent years, but the word in fact means ‘internal spiritual struggle’, and also ‘striving against non-believers’. Mass murder was not one of its meanings, as is assumed by some militants. The widely-spread notion of ‘twelve white virgins’ is actually something quite different as well, as the translation is merely ‘pure white grapes’.
Whatever your opinions are of a person, leader, or text, they should be made on facts and not mistranslations, misunderstandings, or personal feelings influencing meaning.
4. Unvetted in Vietnam
It has recently been reported that just prior to the Vietnam War, intelligence officers falsified documents about a disputed attack that was used to escalate the Vietnam War.
Matthew Aid, who first asked for the reports under the Freedom of Information Act last year, said it appears that officers at the NSA made honest mistakes in translating interceptions involving the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin incident. This incident was a major influence that helped lead President Johnson to escalate U.S. involvement in Vietnam.
According to the report, mid-level officials decided to falsify documents to cover up the errors, rather than correct the translation mistakes.
The article, written by NSA Historian Robert Hanyok, and the controversy over its release were first reported in The New York Times.
While there were many reasons the US entered into the Vietnam War, and many historians believe that Johnson would have escalated U.S. military action anyway, it remains unclear just how history would have played out if not for a simple mistranslation.
3. Even Presidents Get Bad Translators
In 1977, US President Jimmy Carter traveled to Poland to hold the United States’ first-ever news conference in a communist country. Still reeling from communist threats, this visit was a significant event, one that needed to be met with equal care and grace.
But that’s not how it went.
President Carter was speaking through a not-so-accurate freelance translator who spoke “shaky” Polish. When Carter opened with “I left the United States this morning,” it was translated to, “When I abandoned the United States“. This was met with laughter at first, but as the errors continued and got worse, the Polish were left shaking their heads. When Carter mentioned, “I have come to learn your opinions and understand your desires for the future,” it was translated into, “I desire the Poles carnally.”
If that wasn’t bad enough, the interpreter made things even worse by using 100 year old Polish syntax, and inadvertently criticizing the Polish constitution.
2. The Meaning Gets Buried
In 1956, at the height of the Cold War, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev gave a speech at the Polish Embassy in Moscow which celebrated communism and condemned capitalism. It was at this speech that Khrushchev issued the now famous phrase, “We will bury you.” The United States were already on their toes and nervous about nuclear war, and this statement seemed to all but solidify Russia’s desire to destroy the US with imminent nuclear destruction.
But is that what Khrushchev actually said?
More than likely not. A more literal translation of his words would have been, “We will be present when you are buried,” a common saying in the Soviet Union that isn’t as threatening as it may seem. In the Soviet Union, this saying is used to mean, “We will outlast you” or “We are the champions”; just a little bit of national pride and boastfulness, nothing the USA isn’t guilty of itself.
But thanks to the mistranslation by the media, Americans at the time thought Khrushchev was threatening to literally destroy America, thus increasing the paranoia and PSA videos.
1. They Dropped the Ball and the Bomb
In July 1945, during WW2, the United States issued the Potsdam Declaration, demanding the surrender of Japan. Japanese Premier Kantaro Suzuki called a news conference and issued a statement that was supposed to be interpreted as “No comment. We’re still thinking about it.”
However, that is not what got translated.
Why? Because Suzuki used the word “mokusatsu”. The problem is, “mokusatsu” can also mean “we’re ignoring it in contempt,” and that translation was what was relayed back to the American government. Of course, this angered President Truman, and thus fell the atomic bomb on Hiroshima 10 days later.
If the alternate meanings of “mokusatsu” were known, who knows what could have happened differently.