A Translator’s Perspective
“Thoughtless words cut like a sword” (The Biblical Book of Proverbs 12:18)
Who could have ever imagined that a mistranslation might lead to using for the first time the most destructive weapon on Earth at the endgame of WW II? Yes! More than 140 thousand lost their lives in Hiroshima – Japan after dropping the first nuclear bomb due to a “translation blunder”.
In a news conference, the Japanese premiere issued a statement in response to Postdam Declaration that called for the surrender of all the Japanese armed forces. The Premiere’s words were mistakenly rendered into English as follows: “We are ignoring it in contempt”; however, this was NOT NCESSARILY what the Japanese premiere meant when he uttered his statement in Japanese. The problem was all about attributing, intentionally or otherwise, an alternate meaning of a word used by the Japanese premiere. It was “Mokusatsa”, a Japanese word that has different meanings in different contexts. The Premier’s statement should have been interpreted as “No comment, we are still thinking about it”; however, a translator could not be so sure whether or not the second translation conveys the true intentions of the Japanese premiere. Such ambiguity led to the world most tragic mistranslation later known as “The Big Mokusatsa Mistake”.
Mistranslation examples due to meaning ambiguity abound; which poses both a linguistic and ethical dilemma for a “conscientious” translator or interpreter. It is not the case in this article whether the mis-rendering contributing to the tragedy mentioned above was a deliberate action or otherwise or whether the translator was unware of the alternate meanings of “Mokusatsa”; just, think of what might have happened had the meaning, conveyed by the second translation, been communicated to the USA decision-makers.