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The Worst Translation in History Happened to Be from Japanese to English

There is a great demand for Japanese to English professional translations of intellectual property (IP) documents and corporate papers.  And every once in a while we are reminded of the worst translation in history that happened to be translation from Japanese to English.

Mokusatsu (黙殺) is no longer just a word in the Japanese lexicon but a caveat forever carved into the history of the planet. Had highly educated Japanese to English translators been used during World War II, had they thoroughly understood the meanings of mokusatsu, the nukes that dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima would have never launched. Though translators and interpreters should always have the power of words in mind, the misinterpretation of a single word can lead to sheer devastation—and that’s why it’s important to employ the best certified Japanese translators.

The Meaning of Mokusatsu

Mokusatsu is a word comprised of two kanji. The first is 黙, which means “silence.” The second is 殺, which signifies “kill.” As a verb, the word has a couple of meanings. The first and most widely used is “to take no notice of.” Others include “to treat or kill (anything) with silence;” in other words, “to ignore or disregard.” The last, lesser known meaning is to “withhold one’s comment” while the party in question broods over something.

When someone uses the word, they may be feeling contempt, confusion, sheepishness or discomfort. Thus, it is not always used out of aggression.

Japanese has words with several meanings that change within the context of the sentence and the grammatical structure. There is also pronunciation to consider, for one vowel swap or misspelled syllable emphasis can change the meaning of a word entirely.

The Price of Mistranslation

Within the context of history, the mistake of mistranslation becomes glaringly obvious. There have been several opinions throughout the years of whether or not good translation could have prevented the bombs from dropping.

During World War II, the Allies—namely Truman, Churchill, and Stalin—had formulated the Potsdam Declaration that asked for an unconditional surrender from Japan. Wthin the ultimatum, the Allies wrote that were Japan to respond negatively, there would be swift destruction of their military forces. The premier of Japan, Kantaro Suzuki, replied with one word: the ambiguous mokusatsu. When this was translated back to the Allies as Japan merely disregarding the ultimatum out of contempt, retaliation was inevitable.

However, was this correct? Was it truly the fault of the translator that led to two atomic bombs being dropped in August 1945?

Translation Difficulties with Ambiguous Terminology

A National Security Agency (NSA) document titled “Mokusatsu: One Word, Two Lessons” (N.a.,1968) states plainly the issues many translators face: “Many people, especially non-linguists, seem to feel that every word in one language has an exact counterpart…in every other language” (N.a., 1968). The second problem is the existence of something commonplace in one language but completely unknown to another. Moreover, “quite often a term can be translated word for word, but the resulting translation carries completely disparate meanings in both languages because of cultural differences” (N.a., 1968).

The difficulties of ambiguous terminology, especially in a legal or political sense, can indeed cause much distress, even in speakers and listeners from the same language and culture. Layman’s terms are different from the esoteric. Using mokusatsu as an example, had Suzuki chosen a less vague word as his reply to the declaration, the translator might not have misconstrued the meaning. Furthermore, if the translator knew the nuances of the mokusatsu, the crisis might have been averted.

Mission-Critical and Business-Critical Document Translation Services

Though what ensued from a misinterpretation of mokusatsu is by far the worst case scenario, it does show how one translation mistake can cause a serious issue. That is why professional certified translators are necessary for handling important business translations, legal document translation, engineering translations and medical document translations. Our professional translation services provide you with the assurance that your foreign language documents will retain their original meaning when translated into English.

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