Can a Bad Translation Change History?

Can a Bad Translation Change History?
Why Knowing the Right Word is Key

Every translator has made a bad translation. Trying to figure out what someone means is hard enough when you’re speaking in one language (Source: Ask anyone in a relationship.) Mixing languages, idioms, and understandings can make the situations 100x worse. Imagine the moment when you said something to a friend, lover, or relative that didn’t go over as planned. You knew you made a mistake because of the reaction, but because you both speak the same language, you can make it better. But if you don’t share the same language, how can you be sure how you messed up. Even worse, how do you know how to fix it?

Knowing what you’re saying is part of everyday conversation. The intricacies of the language are some of what makes the language beautiful. But those same intricacies can create some historically bad results. Hopefully for most of the people reading, a mistranslated phrase will be a funny story. However, historically, the results have been more… explosive. Some mistakes are over quickly, but others stick around for quite a bit longer. Be careful to make sure you never have a bad translation…


The Horned Statue: St. Jerome’s Millennia long screw up.

Long before Charlton Heston lead the Israelites across the most spectacularly awesome special effects set ever, Moses did it for real. According to the biblical account, Moses led the Israelites out of Egyptian lands towards the Red Sea. Once they arrived, the story goes, Moses “Stretched out his hand over the sea, and the LORD drove the sea back by a strong east wind…”. Whether you believe the story or not, it’s impact on culture and civilization cannot be ignored. Poetry, paintings, and sculptures have all been created around this story. St. Jerome was no exception.

St. Jerome was no fool. In fact, he fought every day to be as informed as possible. He was probably fluent in Greek, and acknowledged that Hebrew was not his strong suit. When he moved to Jerusalem, he wanted to get a solid grip in the language of the Bible. He didn’t trust the Greek translation of the old testament, and instead chose to go back to the original Hebrew. He wanted to have his own translation, that he could trust.

Here’s the problem: If ancient Hebrew was an easy language to learn, everyone would speak it. An ancient language can be a minefield for bad translation.

Neither are any of these…

Even in modern languages, you’re going to run into similar sounding words. “Wish” and “wash”, “Dumb and Dump”, and the list goes on and on. There are a few different ideas about what went wrong, but a probable explanation is two sister words in Hebrew. “Karan” and “Keren” are two very real words, and two very different words. When Moses came down from Mt. Sinai, he was “Karan”/ “Keren”. Most Hebrew scholars would say “Karan” or “he was radiant.” Unfortunately, St. Jerome chose “Keren” or horned. Artists, poets, and politicians all used this translation in their work…

The horns are… missing the point

How bad can it be though, right? After centuries, a group of powerful people with state backing found a copy that explained Moses’ horns. They found statues with horns, and then decided to mass produce them. Instead of actual representations of what the Jewish people looked like, the Nazis used this bad translation as a justification for their actions. This was such a prevalent idea that after the war, it wasn’t uncommon for a Jewish German to be asked “Where are your horns?”

Be careful with your words, guys… But it’s not just 4th century scholars who screw things up. Sometimes Presidents can as well.

Carter accidentally makes a Pass at Poland:

Dancing with foreign leaders is always an interesting event. If you’re looking for an actual dance, then all you risk is looking clumsy. If your dance involves nuclear weapons, things get a bit more… careful. Each misstep may be the mistake that ends the world, and you go down in history as the biggest idiot in history.

The Cold War was one of those dances. The Soviet Union was going head to head with the United States Economic engine. While the giants danced, the rest of the world watched. Some where free, others were occupied. Poland was one of those occupied areas. The solidarity movement was still a few years away. Carter saw an opportunity to win the hearts and minds of the Polish people without firing a shot. He went there in 1977 prepared to let the Polish people know the United States had their back. Carter wasn’t the only one about the make history that day. His Interpreter was there to make sure the Polish people understood exactly what Carter wanted.

Steven Seymour wasn’t an amateur. In fact, he’s still out there in the translation world today. He wasn’t a bad translator, and he wasn’t even inexperienced. His problem was that the cards weren’t in his favor that day. According to his own account:
1) They didn’t give him the text until the last minute: No matter how good of a translator you are, you need some time to prepare.

2) Air Force One arrived Late: It wasn’t anyone’s fault, but that brings the timeline even shorter.

3) It was a freezing cold day, and there was no place for Steven to prepare.

4) He spoke English, Russian, and Polish: Russian and polish are very similar, easily confused…

This is prime ground for a bad translation…

Bad Translation
The Polish people before Carter started speaking

Anyone who has ever interpreted anything knows these four facts equal disaster, and that’s what happened. According to Seymour’s own story, he thought everything went well. What he didn’t realize is that he missed some key words. When Carter said “I have left the United States…” Steven chose a Polish word that was closer to the word “Abandoned forever” rather than just for a short time…

Bad Translation
The Polish people /after/ Carter started speaking

Another instance that didn’t work out so well was when Carter talked about the desires of the Polish people, he probably meant something along the lines of “Hopes and dreams”. Seymour, given his current condition, chose a word that was closer to “a man’s desire for a woman”.

Bad translation
*Sings* When a MAAAAN loves a NATION….*

There’s nothing worse than a president trying to reach out in friendship, and accidentally  fondling a nation’s sensibilities.

At least that bad translation didn’t result in real damage, right?
A bad translation from the Soviets may have cost them the Space Race…

Nikita Khrushchev Terrifies a Nation… by Accident.

The Cold War was a strange time in global history. It was a forty-five year “Will they, won’t they?” but instead of your favorite characters, it was the United States and the Soviet Union, and instead of making out, it was thermonuclear destruction.

Both the USSR and the USA saw leaders come and go during that 45 years. They also saw incredible innovation, exceptional espionage, and a ton of trash talk between the two superpowers. The Soviet Union was a group of nations, all working together for the common good, in the same way that the partiers were working together to help Hans Gruber in Die Hard. (Spoilers: Under threat of being executed without hesitation.) The Soviet leaders knew they had a problem, and were working hard to keep the Union together, projecting strength at every opportunity.

During a 1956 address, Nikita Khrushchev said (through a translator) “Whether you like it or not, history is on our side. We will bury you.” There are two problems with this statement. The first is that Russia probably didn’t have the ability to destroy allied forces so easily. THe second problem is: Khrushchev didn’t actually say that.

Bad translation
Here lies capitalism…probably

Khrushchev wasn’t a politician. He was from a blue-collar family. Khrushchev was from a mining family. He made his mark early on my sympathizing with the working class, because he was one of them. Nikita made local and national news by being among the first to publicly denounce Stalin. After Stalin’s time was over, Khrushchev came into his prime. Trading threats with Eisenhower in 1956 wasn’t Eastern politics vs. Western politics, it was an Eastern working class man against a Military General.

Khrushchev wasn’t looking to frighten the Western sphere of influence, but wasn’t about to back down. While capitalism was expanding in every corner of the globe, communism wasn’t about the fade into the night. When Khrushchev spoke that day, he was coming to deliver a very important message.

“We are not going to be intimidated.” “We are not going to disappear.” “Long after you are gone, we will still be here.” That was the sentiment. Any of these phrases are standard political bantering. However, when that phrase is translated “We will bury you!” it is a much more ominous sounding statement. Instead of a self-assured statement of national power, the American’s heard a statement of impending doom. This pushed the American war machine into overdrive, making sure that if something was going to happen, they weren’t the only ones who were going to die.

Fortunately, even though there were some close calls, this bad translation didn’t turn the cold war hot. There was an incident involving the Japanese that didn’t go so well.

The Potsdam Declaration: Mokusatsu and the Bomb.

World War Two wasn’t a good time for anyone. Old scores were settled, old wounds were reopened, countries were snuffed out of existence, and those that survived are still feeling the repercussions of this cataclysmic time. World War One crippled the old mentality of warfare. What little was left found itself coming face to face with firestorms, and carpet-bombing. That was all before Pearl Harbor.

After Pearl Harbor, the United States war machine was kicked into high gear. Plans were made, operations executed, and within 5 years, the Allied forces met at the Potsdam Conference. During that conference, the Potsdam declaration was drawn up. This declaration was given to the Japanese empire requiring its unconditional surrender. The allies had information that the Japanese would not surrender, and would fight down to the last man. They wanted to avoid that however possible. The allies wanted the war to be over, and wanted the Japanese army to surrender without condition.

When presented with the Potsdam Declaration, Emperor Hirohito carefully considered his response. Japanese is a very ancient language, and many words can have more than one meaning. In the highly complex world of 1945, choosing the right word was crucial. Emperor Hirohito took his time, and issued the following response:

“My thinking is that the join declaration is virtually the same as the earlier declaration. The government of Japan does not consider it having any crucial value. We simply Mokusatsu suru. The only alternative for us is to be determined to continue to fight to the end”. If you don’t speak Japanese, that phrase means nothing to you. But to people of Japan, it could mean several things. Technically, it could mean “No comment” or “You are not worthy of addressing.”  Although, many translators since that time have interpreted the phrase to mean something closer to “I am withholding comment until I have more information”. It could make sense both ways. What isn’t up for interpretation is the result.

Whether it was meant as a statement of contempt, a placeholder, or a stalling tactic, we may never know for sure. What is known is the Allied response. On August 6, 1945, Hiroshima bore the brunt of the Allied response. To be absolutely clear on the stakes, 3 days later Nagasaki got the same again. That was enough for Japan…

 Take care of yourself


History is full of bad translations and misunderstandings. If you’re learning a new language, be careful to choose the right words. You probably won’t accidentally embarrass a President, but embarrassing yourself is no fun either.

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