Notorious Mistranslations in History
Translation is difficult. Everyone who has ever translated anything can agree with this statement. This is especially true with dealing with translations of financial documents, legal and political texts. Translators of legal papers, political and financial documents need to have extensive experience, wide background knowledge, and exceptional language skills. There’s also added pressure when you know that your work needs to be flawless. Otherwise, there will be big consequences that can change lives.
Unfortunately, translation errors and misinterpretations still happen. A great number of factors can cause them, such as a simple misunderstanding, inattention, lack of knowledge, or intentional mistakes. Today we’re going to look at cases where even the slightest misinterpretation resulted in a disaster.
1. 1889, Treaty of Wuchale between Italy and Ethiopia
We’ll kick off our countdown with a mistranslation that took place back in 1889. It was the time when the Empire of Ethiopia and the Kingdom of Italy signed a Treaty of friendship and trade. Because it was signed in the Ethiopian town of Wuchale, the treaty was named after the town. The only problem was that it never brought any friendship to the parties that signed it.
The problem was that the Italian version of this document slightly differed from the Amharic version.
The latter stated that Ethiopia would have autonomy with an option of negotiating with third powers through the Italians; however, the Italian version of the treaty stated that Ethiopia would be obliged to conduct all their affairs through authorities of Italy, which gave no flexibility and practically established an Italian protectorate.
The Italians then explained that the difference in texts was caused by a mistranslation of a single verb. It formed a mandatory clause in Italian, and a permissive clause in Amharic.
This is one of the mistranslation examples that led to a war. It started six years after the signing of the treaty. Ethiopia won the war.
2. 1945, Potsdam Declaration
Another case when a misinterpretation of a single word brought terrifying consequences happened in 1945.
It was the end of World War II. Leaders of the Allied powers gathered in Potsdam and issued the document, outlining the surrender terms for the Empire of Japan. The document was called the Potsdam Declaration, also known as the Proclamation Defining Terms for Japanese Surrender.
The document had quite harsh wording to begin with. It was practically an ultimatum, which stated that Japan must surrender, otherwise it would face “prompt and utter destruction”.
Japan didn’t respond for some time, until reporters asked Prime Minister Suzuki in Tokyo to talk about Japan’s decision.
The Prime Minister used the word mokusatsu in his response. What he meant to say was “refrain from comments at the moment”, “think”, “withhold comment”.
But there was the other meaning to this word (“take into account”, “ignore”, “treat with silent contempt”). And the English translation selected for it meant nothing but a categorical rejection. The response was interpreted as “not worthy of comment”.
The result? Ten days later, the atomic bomb was dropped on the city of Hiroshima. This is one of the most tragic mistranslation examples in human history.
3. 1956, Nikita Khrushchev’s Speech at the Polish Embassy in Moscow
The comments that the head of the Soviet Union made in 1956, and the way they were interpreted, didn’t really have that bad of an aftermath. But they definitely caused a lot of controversy at the time, increasing tension between Russia and the U.S.
In his speech, Khrushchev talked about the competition between the “capitalist state” of the U.S. and communist Russia. And the words he decided to choose were rather aggressive and difficult to interpret correctly.
The literal English translation of what Khrushchev said during his speech was “We will bury you”. And that’s what it sounds like in Russian. So, this was the exact Russian to English translation.
But the meaning behind these words was a lot softer. That’s why it was a bit difficult to translate to English correctly. The more appropriate interpretation would be “We will outlast you”.
There’s still a lot of debate over this phrase. But it sure is one of the most famous historical misinterpretations.
4. 1964, National Security Agency Report on the Gulf of Tonkin Incident
The Gulf of Tonkin incident, also known as the USS Maddox incident, was an international confrontation that led to the United States being drawn more directly into the Vietnam War.
This case can serve as an example of how translation errors can be a reason for the escalation of military conflict. Combine this with poor intelligence data, and you get a disastrous result.
On August 2, 1964, the North Vietnamese attacked U.S. navy forces in the Gulf of Tonkin. The second attack served as a reason to start a war. But the thing is that this attack never happened.
Further investigations lead to a conclusion that mistakes were made during the Vietnamese to English translation of intelligence from North Vietnam. Those mistakes weren’t corrected, the facts were distorted and the source text destroyed.
One of the prominent examples was the translation of the phrase “we sacrificed two comrades” (a reference to the events of August 2) as “we sacrificed two ships”. And this phrase was used to suggest that it was a report of losing ships by the North Vietnamese during the attack on August 4.
5. 2005, Chinese Financial Report
Let’s now move to the 21st century and see how misinterpretation, as well as lack of experience and background knowledge, can lead to serious economic consequences.
In 2005, a Chinese journalist who had never covered economic news and had little financial knowledge wrote an article containing a quick financial overview. It covered reports and had speculations on the Chinese currency forecast.
The journalist referred to market participants who talked about the forecast for the Chinese Yuan. The report said that the Chinese Yuan would rise at the rate of 1.26% in a month, and 6.03% in a year.
The original meaning of that message was lost in the Chinese translation. The English version of the report stated that the government of China had decided to change the value of its currency by 1.26% in a month, and 6.03% in a year.
It resulted in a panic among the financial marketers and investors. In turn, it led to a sudden drop of the U.S. Dollar value until experts discovered the translation error.
6. 2011, Korean Free Trade Agreement
This case won’t point out translation mistakes. Rather, it shows how different factors, such as lack of time, can cause troubles in translation, even with the high-level documents, such as a free trade agreement.
Korean Trade Minister Kim Jong-hoon had to apologize to the public after discovering that their free trade agreement contained 207 Korean translation errors. They had to withdraw the document from the National Assembly and make all the necessary corrections.
After joining forces with law firms, government agencies, and translation experts, they still discovered 128 completely mistranslated words and 16 typos. The ministry withdrew the revised version and had to come up with a fresh draft.
The ministry decided to issue a completely new document instead of trying to count all the mistakes in the previous version.
The staff members of the ministry had to split the work to be able to finish the translation in time. Otherwise, such a big delay in submitting the agreement would’ve caused suspicions that the government of Korea wanted to hide something.
7. 2012, Sharp’s Earnings Report
Any company can easily cause self-inflicted damage, even when sharing earnings reports. All it takes is to get lost in translation. That’s exactly what happened to Sharp in 2012.
The report already contained the information about the negative cash flow. But the company somehow found a way to make matters even worse.
Even though the company representative expressed confidence in the company’s future, the Japanese to English translation of the report raised some questions. It stated that there was a “material doubt” about the company as a going concern in the future.
As a result, it led to a 10% drop in Sharp’s stock. A few days later, the company corrected the statement. They reassured that there were “no uncertainties” about the future, and that they’d prepared countermeasures to resolve all the current issues.