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Words that altered history – translation blunders in international relations

Poor translation in international relations can have profound and far-reaching consequences, sometimes for several countries, especially when it comes to negotiating complex trade agreements, like the one the European Union recently signed with the UK after years of torturous negotiations detailing Brexit arrangements.

translation blunders in international relations

Don’t let your translations build walls

Mokusatsu

In perhaps the most shocking instance, a mistranslation of a Japanese word contributed to the dropping of nuclear bombs on Nagasaki and Hiroshima in the final days of World War II.

On July 26, 1945, towards the end of World War II, the United States, Great Britain and China called on Japan to surrender unconditionally. The demand, issued at the Potsdam conference, which was convened to discuss what peace would look like, came some two months after the fall of Hitler. However, the war raged on in the Pacific, with Japan showing few signs of letting up. The declaration pledged that the country would not be “enslaved” or “destroyed”, and warned that a negative response would result in “prompt and utter destruction.”

Answering the demand, then Japanese prime minister Suzuki Kantaro responded with the term “mokusatsu,” the translation of which has subsequently become the focus of heated debate.

Notably, he was speaking to reporters off the cuff, before the government had formally decided on its stance. In this context, mokusatsu can be translated as “no comment.” The word has other meanings, and the international press variously translated the response as “not worthy of comment,” and “held in silent contempt,” which riled the US and the UK, who saw the perceived response as aligning with the kamikaze spirit.

Ten days later they decided to drop two nuclear bombs on the country. Linguists have called this the world’s most tragic translation.

translation blunders in international relations

Keeping the peace requires precise, nuanced translations

From Russia with love

Not only did a mistranslation play a part in determining the way World War II ended, another mistranslation arguably increased the likelihood of World War III some 50 years ago.

Against the backdrop of simmering Cold War tensions, and the growing threat of nuclear war, comments by Soviet First Secretary Nikita Khrushchev caused a stir. Speaking in 1956 to a gathering of ambassadors from Western Block countries at the Polish embassy in Moscow, Khrushchev’s comments prompted the envoys of 13 countries to turn their backs and leave the event.

Khruschev was reported to have told the diplomats, “we will bury you”.

However, the context of the quote was not precisely conveyed in the translation. The translator was one Viktor Sukhodrev, who was dubbed the king of interpreters. Sukhodrev has commented that Khrushchev was a difficult speaker to translate as he told jokes and sprinkled his speeches with proverbs.

Some observers argue the translation was too literal, as other meanings of the phrase used include “we will live to see you buried,” or “we shall outlast you.”

Putting the phrase into the context of the whole speech, which was about ideology and not war, shows the threatening element of the “we shall bury you” quote is overblown when taken out of context.

Indeed, Khrushchev later clarified the statement, saying, “I once said, ‘We will bury you’, and I got into trouble with it. Of course, we will not bury you with a shovel. Your own working class will bury you.” This sentiment aligned with communist ideology, which saw the proletariat as the undertaker of capitalism. The sentiment being expressed was that Communism would outlast Capitalism. In the end, Sukhodrev’s translation was technically right, but he had arguably misjudged the audience’s level of understanding of the cultural context of the phrase.

Observers continue to debate whether it was a misinterpretation or a full-on mistranslation.

Persian problems

In 2005, then Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad kicked up a brouhaha with comments he gave at a conference titled The World Without Zionism. The UK’s Guardian newspaper reported that the then newly installed leader had said that Israel was a “disgraceful blot” and it should be “wiped off the face of the earth.”

France, German, Israel and the US swiftly condemned the statement. Indeed, previous Iranian leaders had previously issued similar comments, though not for several years, and in that time, relations between many Muslim states and Israel had improved.

However, linguists like Juan Cole of the University of Michigan, pointed out that the original Persian statement did not express the thought that Israel should be wiped off the face of the earth. Rather, a more accurate translation is, “Israel would collapse.”

It seems newswire translators had mistranslated the statement. These translators had relied on a quote from a speech given in the 1980s by Ayatollah Khomeini, founder of the Islamic Republic of Iran, which had also been translated imprecisely, as a reference for the quote.

Not only did the transaction mishap stoke international tensions and the perception that Iran was adopting a more militaristic stance on Israel, in Iran the quote in English was taken up by nationalists and plastered on billboards.

Poleaxed in Poland

On a lighter note, US president Jimmy Carter was subject to some colourful mistranslations on a visit to Poland in 1977. In one speech, he intimated that he’d like to get to know the Polish people’s “desires for the future.” The interpreter, however, mistranslated it as Carter expressing sexual desire for the country. The comment was met with stone-cold silence.

translation blunders in international relations

With so many languages spoken in international relations, slip-ups are all too easy

The interpreter also mangled another part of Carter’s speech, reported Time magazine. In this instance, “I left the United States this morning” became, “I left the United States, never to return.” Queue more silence.

The interpreter was replaced, but the problems didn’t end there. While giving a toast at a state banquet later that same trip, Carter looked up from his speech to be met by another wall of silence. The new interpreter had found the US leader’s English too challenging, so instead of interpreting, he just stayed silent.

It’s not just international relations where precision and context are key. Interpreting business requirements need the same level of skill and experience. For example, eliciting the same responses as the mistranslations above in customers would be disastrous if you’re engaging in the likes of a media localisation agency, audio transcription services provider, or legal translator. Correct translation and translation quality assurance are incredibly important.

These examples clearly demonstrate the need for precise translations that are nuanced enough to take account of the cultural context. Whether you’re looking for a Russian translation agency, or want to access a Arabic vs Urdu vs Farsi translating and interpreting service, to avoid diplomatic faux pas, get in touch with Into23’s team of expert, and very precise, polyglot translators.