Interpreting is definitely not an easy job, requiring from a person to be multilingual or bilingual communication expert in wide variety of fields. Making mistakes is hard to avoid but often they are quickly recognized by a good interpreter. Sometimes, this is not the case which unfortunately results in catastrophic interpreting mistakes that can influence the course of history. The following 3 made the strongest impact:
1. ONE WORD MAKES A BIG DIFFERENCE
In July 1945, Potsdam Declaration was issued requesting the surrender of Japan. After translation of terms into Japanese allied countries waited for response from then Japanese Prime Minister, Kantaro Suzuki. Finally, on news conference he issued statement and used the key word “mokusatsu”, a word that has different interpretation and it is derived from the Japanese term for “silence”.
In this particular context, true meaning was “No comment” or “withholding comment”, unfortunately for Japan this is not what got translated. Media agencies and translators interpreted the word “treat with silent contempt” or “take into account” (to ignore), as the categorical rejection by the Prime Minister. As a result, the Americans were even more angered by the arrogant tone, understanding that there was no possibility for negotiations or settlement with Japan. 10 days later atomic bomb fell on Hiroshima and the translation error killed more than 70,000 people. If this mistake never happened, who knows if interpreter could have saved their lives.
2. COLD WORDS CAUSE COLDER RELATIONS
During the Cold War, Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev in his speech to Western ambassadors at a reception at the Polish embassy in Moscow, used a phrase than interpreted from Russian as “We will bury you”. Of course, in the height of the war this was seen as direct threat to the West and resulted in escalated tension. What he really meant to say was “We will outlast you” but this misinterpretation was plastered in every media causing fear and paranoia among Americans from nuclear attack.
3. WIPING OFF MISTAKES IN THE MIDDLE-EAST
Ten years ago, President of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in his speech stated that Israel “must be wiped off the map.” Those words caused uproar and damage was done despite the fact that later it was acknowledged that he actually never said that and the correct translation should actually been “It will not survive”. What Ahmadinejad wanted to say is that Israel has no legitimacy as a state and not that they were planning any sort of military action. In the Middle-East this type of mistake is taken very seriously and has huge implications on region relations. Interpreters have later discussed that this mistake happened due to difficulty for English speakers to fully interpreter Persian rhetoric.