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Atomic Errors

As translators and translator agencies, we are constantly running into erroneous or nonsensical translations. In some cases – such as the ones that we published in a post from a few weeks ago in which we cite some examples taken from the cinematic world – they end up being comical. However, translation is a key task in achieving mutual understanding between people, and if one doesn’t understand something in a movie or a book, then they will miss out on some meaning; but, since people don’t live just off of movies, there is an infinity of other situations in which words must always be precise.

Among said situations is the arena of international relations, where the interpreter’s task is fundamental, as it is precisely in this field where groups or individuals who cannot understand each other without a translator or interpreter are constantly facing each other (and sometimes, too often, coming into conflict). We already saw in a previous blog post that it is likely that the bombing of Hiroshima was caused by a translation error of the word mokusatsu, transmitted by the American interpreters as conveying the idea that the Japanese were “ignoring” their ultimatum, as opposed to the meaning that the Japanese would have wanted to communicate, which is in the sense that they “abstained from responding” to the ultimatum. This bad translation made Japan seem as if it were taking a defiant position towards the threat – and we all know of the disastrous results which that entailed.

Another similar case, which also involves the United States and nuclear arms, occurred some years later. In a speech given at the peak of the Cold War, Nikita Khrushchev, the then-Prime Minister of the Soviet Union, uttered a phrase that was taken by the Western media along the lines of “we are going to bury you.” Keeping in mind the tense political context and intensifying arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union, the news that the Soviet prime minister had told the capitalist world that it would bury it generated a bit more than just worry, as it was interpreted as a direct threat of a nuclear attack. Of course, this did nothing other than increase the tension between the two blocks and possibly prolong the conflict. In reality, it is said that Khrushchev said something more along the lines of: “we will live to see you buried,” which is an common Russian expression which is used to convey the idea that “we will live longer than you” – that is to say, it actually had nothing to do with the threat of an attack, but rather a declaration of superiority.

In these examples, we once again see the tremendous power of words, and the enormous responsibility that on occasion falls on the shoulders of translators and interpreters, as a person’s small error can result in a major error for humanity.