Lost in Translation
Who hasn’t had something lost in translation at one time or another? Unfortunately for the Japanese people at the end of WWII, the interpretation of a single word could have cost hundreds of thousands of lives.
Following the Potsdam Conference in summer 1945, the Allied forces called for the unconditional surrender of the Japanese. Eager to hear how the Japanese government would respond, the press reported that the prime minister uttered but a single word, “Mokusatsu.”
This word has several meanings, and it’s likely that the prime minister intended it to mean “no comment.” Unfortunately for him, mokusatsu also means “not worth of comment” or “kill.” Just days later, the Allies dropped atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, killing some 129,000 people along with tens of thousands more later dying from radiation.
He Said She Said
Another infamous example of a poorly translated words came with the Treaty of Wuchale in 1889. In the Ethiopian version, dictated in Amharic, the treaty stated that the Ethiopian Emperor could use the Italian embassy to conduct foreign affairs, should he wish to do so.
In the Italian translation, however, it stated that the emperor must use the Italian embassy. To Italy, this meant a cessation of Ethiopian power into the Italian empire. When the two sides came to heads about the issue, it was war, and while the Italians thought they stood a chance, they were swiftly defeated by the Ethiopian forces.
Trusted diplomat and secretary of state under President Truman, Dean Acheson was an extremely important figure in US international relations throughout the Cold War. Unfortunately, while giving a speech on containment, Acheson forgot to mention protecting Korea. Many people interpreted this as a reason why communist forces in present-day North Korea shortly thereafter invaded South Korea, which led to the Korean War and millions of lives lost in the process.