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3 translation errors which changed the course of history

You may or may not fully understand just how far-reaching a simple, harmless mistranslation can be.

In a world where international trade is commonplace. Where people who usually don’t understand each other come together to transact; language – correctly translating what the other party said – is the only difference between whether a high-stake multi-million deal is signed or not.

And during wartime, it could also mean whether an atomic bomb is dropped on a Hiroshima or not.

In this piece, we’ll step back in history to see how innocent errors in translations changed the course of history.

Use of Atomic Bomb During WW2

During World War 2, the Americans gave the Japanese government an ultimatum to surrender unconditionally.

When the Japanese prime minister, Kantara Suzuki was asked what his government’s response would be, he said, “Mokusatsu.” Since they haven’t had the chance to review what their reaction would be.

He used a single word which has a double meaning: “No comment” or “Not worthy of a comment.”

Now, that wasn’t even a problem, except that the person who translated this message didn’t choose to translate “Mokusatsu” as “not worthy of comment” without adding a side note that it could also mean “no comment.”

Ten days later, the US Army dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

We will bury you

At the height of the cold war, when tension was feverish-high between the Soviets and western countries, the world was at the brink of a nuclear meltdown.

It was a best-practice for leaders from both divides to make calculated speeches so as not to inflame the already dire situation.

However, things took a worse turn when the Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev was quoted out of context.

Speaking at the Polish embassy in Moscow, his interpreter literally translated a statement which he made to: “we will bury you!” that wouldn’t have raised too may raise eyebrow except that it was in the ’50s and Russia has the capacity to annihilate America.

As expected, the statement didn’t go down well with the Western countries, and it pushed an already tensed situation to breaking point.

Today, we all know the interpretation of that statement shouldn’t have to be taken literally. When put into context, what the Soviet premier was saying is: “we shall be present at your funeral.” Or “We shall outlast you.”

How we got to have Martians

You’ll hardly believe it if you’re told that the idea of living beings on Mars was actually as a result of an error in translation. But, that’s precisely what happened.

An Italian astronomer, Giovanni Schiaparelli in 1877 reported that there were “canali” which was wrongly assumed to mean canal on Mars. Canali, in fact, means channels or trenches.

And, since canals are fundamentally “man-made,” people began to speculate that perhaps Mars was once inhabited by a long-lost race.

Things didn’t kick-off for the Martians until Astronomer Percival Lowell came around. It was apparent he had read Schiaparelli’s work and set out to prove him right.

So, Lowell built himself an observatory in Arizona where he studied Mars and drew canals which he allegedly observed on the planet. And then, came along the sci-fi genre that fed off this error; hence our Martians were born.

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