5 translation mistakes which changed our history

Published on 30/08/2021

Throughout history, translation errors have contributed to many misunderstandings between nations, sometimes with terrible consequences.

Even professional translators and interpreters can make mistakes. Even if they do their job to the best of their ability and strive for high-quality translations.

Here are 5 of the catastrophic translation errors.

1. A terrible translation mistake leads to the bombing of Hiroshima

A terrible translation mistake leads to the bombing of Hiroshima

In 1967, the American historian William Craig published the book "The Fall of Japan". In this book, he uncovered a serious translation mistake with catastrophic consequences.This error could have been the cause of the bombing of Hiroshima on 6 August 1945.

The Japanese Supreme War Council responded to the Allies’ ultimatum to surrender the press: "mokusatsu". This can be translated in different ways: "withholding comment" or "treat with contempt" or "ignore".

The version chosen by the journalists was "We categorically reject your ultimatum". Everything indicated that the first translation was closest to the actual meaning. This is also what the National Security Agency reports.

Unfortunately, the release of the wrong translation triggered the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and took the lives of at least 70,000 people.

2. A translation mistake triggered a long lasting war in Georgia in 2008

A translation mistake triggered a long lasting war in Georgia in 2008

In 2008, the Russians were accused of not having responded to the ceasefire in the Russia-Georgia conflict. This led to hostilities dragging on for a whole month. At that time, France, under the presidency of Nicolas Sarkozy, tried to mediate between the two parties.

However, the Russians were wrongly accused. Later it turned out that a translation error in the peace treaty had been the cause of the misunderstanding. French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner also acknowledged this mistake.

3. Biblical translation mistakes

Biblical translation mistakes

Several errors in the translation of the Bible have remained in the annals. As they did not affect the actual meaning, they were not changed.

One of them can be found in the following passage: "It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God".

This is a well-known expression, but it is actually a translation mistake. It probably originated fromthe confusion of the Greek words "kamelos" (camel) and "kamilos" (rope).

4. Literal translations that lead to misunderstandings

Literal translations lead to misunderstandings

On 21 December 1944, 18,000 Americans were surrounded by 45,000 Germans in Bastogne, Belgium. The Germans send a message to the besieged to surrender.

General Anthony McAuliffe, in charge of the American troops, replied "nuts". Obviously, he didn’t refer to actual nuts t eat, but rather tried to say "you're crazy").

This totally confused the generals of the Wehrmacht, as their translator was not very good. 

They were so confused that they sent another message asking if it was a positive or negative message. The general in charge then confirmed that it was of course negative one. The siege of Bastogne ended on 27 December.

5. Translation mistakes of the President

Translation mistakes of the President

A trip by US President Jimmy Carter to Poland in 1977 almost ended in a total disaster. The interpreter completely misrepresented the President's words.

"This morning I left the United States" became "This morning I left the United States forever". And "I have come to listen to your views and understand your perspectives for the future" became a very absurd translation. The interpreter said the President would desire them sexually and want to see their private parts!

Fortunately, everyone was in a good mood. There were no diplomatic incidents that day due to the incompetence of the translator.

These 5 historical translation mistakes are unfortunate events that could have been avoided with a more qualified and professional translator.

At AbroadLink Translations, we are committed to high-quality translation and offer professional language services.

Virginia Pacheco's picture
Virginia Pacheco

Blog writer and Community Manager interested in multiculturality and linguistic diversity. From her native Venuzuela, she has travelled and lived for many years in France, Germany, Cameroon and Spain, passing on her passion for writing and her intercultural experiences.

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