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Translation mistakes changing history

5 times a translation changed the course of history

Revised: September 2021

Nowadays you would be forgiven for thinking that human translation is a dying art. When we all have devices in our pockets that contain translation technology capable of interpreting audio or text within a few seconds, the world feels smaller and more accessible.

But the reality is that whilst those devices can provide a quick fix in a supermarket or at a bar, the interpretation of anything more complex is still a task that requires human translation. A skilled translator does not only have an aptitude for a second language but an in-depth understanding of the nuances of both languages. This knowledge and expertise are essential to ensure the original message remains intact.

For businesses, translation fails can result in red faces and lost sales, but enlisting the help of a translation company can protect you from such scenarios. Here we look into examples at the most extreme end of the scale, where mistranslations have changed the course of history.

1. Khrushchev’s threat

As if relations couldn’t have been any more frosty during the Cold War, an incident in which Soviet head of state, Nikita Khrushchev’s words were taken out of context served to delay peace even further. During a reception with visiting ambassadors from the West at the Polish embassy in Moscow, the leader was interpreted to have said, “We will bury you”.

The press ran with the story, splashing the threat across their front pages, doing little to improve East/West relations. The Americans were outraged and feared an imminent nuclear attack.

What context and hindsight has taught us, is that what Khrushchev was in fact saying was more along the lines of, “Whether you like it or not, history is on our side. We will dig you in.” An accurate translation of his meaning is that Communism would outlive Capitalism which he believed to be on a path of self-destruction. He is referencing a famous quote from the Communist Manifesto which reads, “What the bourgeoisie therefore produces, above all, are its own grave-diggers.”

2. “No comment.”

As World War II intensified, a misunderstanding of a phrase used by the Japanese Prime Minister is alleged to have caused untold damage.

During the Potsdam Conference of July 1945, the allies issued Kantaro Suzuki with an ultimatum. They demanded he unconditionally surrender Japan. In response, Suzuki offered the gathered press very little, stating only “No comment.”

The word he used, “mokusatsu” was taken by translators to mean that Suzuki was ignoring the ultimatum, or treating it with contempt. When this was relayed back to American politicians, they took it to mean the Japanese Prime Minister actively dismissed their threat. It was just ten days later that the nuclear bombs were dropped on Japan.

3. Revenge on Vietnam

In 1964, when relationships between the USA and Vietnam were at a low, a mistranslation of a report on the Tonkin episode had disastrous consequences for the Asian nation.

Following a marine attack in which the North Vietnamese took out an American warship, it is reported that American translators misinterpreted the Vietnamese transmission describing the event. What should have been relayed as “we sacrificed two comrades” was instead conveyed to American decision-makers in the official translation as “we sacrificed two ships.” It is believed that the mistake was recognised by the translation agency but covered up to protect their reputation.

Deeming the second ship to be an affront too far, it is alleged that the USA subsequently declared war on Vietnam.

“Rather than come clean about their mistake, they helped launch the United States into a bloody war that would last for 10 years,” said Matthew M Aid, an independent historian.

4. Is there life on Mars?

It was Italian astronomer Giovanni Virginio Schiaparelli who first attempted to map Mars back in 1877. As director of Milan’s Brera Observatory, he used telescopes to record what he saw on the surface of the distant planet.

To differentiate between the light and dark areas of land he saw, he used the words “seas” and “continents”, marking what appeared to be channels using the word “canali.” Whilst “canali” in this context meant channels, it can also mean canals, a subtlety that was lost in the translation process.

English speaking astronomers studying Schiaparelli’s work were astounded. Not only was there water on Mars, but there were life forms intelligent enough to build canals! This was around the time the Suez Canal was built, and the waterways still formed an integral part of commercial operations in developed countries. So mapping their presence on a new planet would have been truly inspiring. In 1894, American astronomer Percival Lowell spent a year studying these canals and even published three books on the subject.

The confusion caused by this translation fail did not stop there. Novelist HG Wells, having read Lowell’s work, wrote The War of the Worlds, released in 1897. In it he tells the story of a Martian invasion of Earth, unwittingly spawning an entire genre: sci-fi.

5. Popular in Poland

Former US President Jimmy Carter raised some eyebrows on a state visit to Communist Poland in 1977 when his words were mistranslated to the Polish people several times.

Expressing his wish to learn more about Polish people’s desires for the future, professional translator, Steven Seymour transmitted the message that President Carter had sexual desire for the entire nation. The embarrassment was not to end there, however. Explaining to the gathered audience that he had left the United States that morning, Jimmy Carter received puzzled looks when this was taken to mean that he had abandoned the United States forever.

Surely he would be on safer ground exclaiming that he was happy to be in Poland? Not when it was interpreted that he was happy to grasp at Poland’s private parts.

Needless to say, Mr. Seymour was relieved of his duties for the rest of President Carter’s memorable visit.

Professional translations

Of course, these are the most extreme examples of translation errors causing in some cases unimaginable damage. It’s very unlikely that a business translation would cause such strife!

That said, it is always advisable to use professional translation services, such as those offered by Matinée Multilingual. Our translation services comprise a dedicated translator who is skilled at producing translations that are error-free and sensitive to the specific linguistic and cultural nuances of the languages at play.

We have over 30 years’ experience of providing professional translation services that help businesses access overseas markets and widen their audience reach. Whether you need a translation for audio or video content, or just want to find out more about the services we offer, why not get in touch with us today to find out how we can help you?

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