Translation can save lives. Any medical interpreter, including our President and founder Sean Hopwood, is keenly aware of this. With such gravity comes a darker reality, as well: translation mistakes can cost lives. And in some cases, catastrophic translation mistakes have caused unimaginable damage to humanity.
In 1945, Japan was weakened to the point of defeat. The ‘Big Four’ of the allied forces–the U.S., Great Britain, the Soviet Union, and the Republic of China–gathered in Potsdam, Germany. They sent their sternly worded terms of surrender to Japanese Prime Minister Kantaro Suzuki. If Japan did not meet the terms, the allies threatened “prompt and utter destruction.”
They waited tensely for a reply, which could determine how World War II would end.
When Japanese media asked what Japan’s reply was to be, Premier Suzuki said that they hadn’t come to a final decision. For now, they would withhold comment.
He used the word mokusatsu, a term with a range of meanings from ‘remain in a wise and masterly inactivity’ to ‘withhold comment’ to ‘ignore with contempt’.
When the term mokusatsu found its way into the hands of English translators, they translated it as ‘ignore with contempt.’ This translation mistake, which did not match Suzuki’s attitude or intention, circulated among American media, stirring outrage. Ten days later, the decision was made. The the B-29 Enola Gay headed for Hiroshima, with the bomb aboard.
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Stalin, Churchill, Truman, and Chiang Kai-Shek later said that they had hoped for Japan to surrender. But, infuriated by such a seemingly dismissive response, and unaware of the translation mistakes, they felt they had to make good on their threat: prompt and utter destruction. It’s a decision that many consider tragically unnecessary.
People with no knowledge of Japanese, who would never even see the original reply, heard that it was dismissive and contemptuous. They had no idea that there was even room for such translation mistakes.
70,000-80,000 people died in an instant. Even higher numbers of people would die slowly. This, on account of a simple but catastrophic translation mistake.
A Deadly Silence
Languages do not always have words whose meanings align exactly with each other. An unclassified NSA report on the mokusatsu translation mistakes points this out.
If you have six animals, for example, one language might have two words for them: a word for the bigger animals and a word for the smaller ones. Another language might separate the animals by what they eat. So they’ll have a word for the herbivores and word for the carnivores. A third language might classify the animals by color. A fourth might have six unique words–one for every animal, or even twelve if there are different terms for the males and females.
When you ask people from two of these language groups what they call the animal, one might say “we call it a buck,” (using a word for any male, cloven-hoofed herbivore) while the other might say “we call it a stag,” (meaning a large brown animal with a white tail and antlers). An amateur might assume that buck = stag. But a competent professional will not make these kinds of translation mistakes.
People from different cultures see things differently, so languages don’t synchronize in a clean cut way.
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Furthermore, words often have discrete shades of meaning that context reveals. Mokusatsu is just one example. This makes translation mistakes all too easy, and a translator must be extra sensitive to context and intent when the stakes are high.
A Future Free of Catastrophic Translation Mistakes
Translation mistakes don’t usually have such dramatic consequences. And in fact, there’s room to question what ‘translation mistakes’ really mean. The Allies’ official translation of mokusatsu was technically correct, but it failed to capture the intention of the Japanese Premiere. How could they have known?
Other historical perspectives question Prime Minister Suzuki’s choice of such a delicate word. Politicians often phrase things in a vague way that hedges against liability. Perhaps if he’d made his intention direct and incorruptibly clear, the catastrophic translation mistakes could’ve been avoided.
Still, it is the translator’s responsibility to account for multiple meanings, and if in doubt, to communicate all possible translations. The allies’ Japanese to English translators, whom history has mercifully forgotten, failed to so much as note that there was room for milder interpretations of mokusatsu.
We now know the gravity of avoiding such catastrophic translation mistakes. A translator’s fidelity must be to intent, not necessarily to technical accuracy. If Suzuki’s intended message had come through, how many lives would that have spared? How different would the world be today?
More importantly, what can we do to foster good communication across borders and ensure that such catastrophic translation mistakes never happen again?