Mistakes of translators that led to disastrous consequences

Correct and accurate translation is a complicated and responsible thing. And the more responsible the translation, the more catastrophic the translator’s mistake can lead.

Sometimes one such mistake is worth a human life, but among them there are those that cost tens of thousands of lives. Today, together with you, we will analyze the mistakes of translators who have cost too much history. In view of the specifics of our work, we examined errors one way or another related to the English language. Go.


Translator’s false friend left an 18-year-old guy disabled

Probably the most famous case of a medical error due to a single word occurred in South Florida, in 1980.

18-year-old Cuban Willy Ramirez suddenly felt a severe headache and severe dizziness. The disorientation was so strong that he could not see and think normally. After that, he lost consciousness and remained in this state for two days.

Willy’s mother thought he had been poisoned – a few hours before the attack, he had lunch in a new cafe. But Mrs. Rodriguez spoke very poorly in English. She tried to explain to the emergency doctor that the reason for this condition could be from poor food and used the Spanish word “intoxicado”, which means “poisoned”.

But in English there is the word “intoxicated”, which has a completely different meaning – “overdose of alcohol or narcotic substances,” which caused a critical condition of the body. The ambulance doctor thought that the guy was just “stoned”, which he reported to the hospital.

In reality, the guy had a hemorrhagic stroke – a rupture of a vessel and bleeding in the brain. A rare case in so young people, but not exceptional.

As a result, Willy was “treated” for an overdose, dug up, but he did not recover, and the stroke grew into such a phase that it entailed complete paralysis of the body.

The family was eventually awarded a record compensation of $ 71 million, but we don’t even have any idea what it would be like to remain disabled due to one incorrectly translated word.

The situation itself led to serious reforms in US medicine, during which the procedure for providing care to patients has changed quite a lot. Partly because of them, being treated without insurance in the USA is now terribly expensive.

You can read the history of Ramirez in more detail. here.

“We will bury you!” – as a wrong translation almost led to a war between the USSR and the USA

1956, the height of the Cold War between the USSR and the USA. In the speeches of the leaders of both countries, threats often flash, but not everyone knows that, due to a translation error, a real war almost started.

Nikita Khrushchev, Secretary General of the USSR, spoke at a reception at the Polish embassy. The problem is that he was often restrained in public speaking and used idiomatic expressions that were difficult to translate without a deep knowledge of the context.

The phrase was as follows:

“Whether you like it or not, the story is on our side. We will bury you. ”

Obviously, Khrushchev here interpreted Marx and his thesis that “the proletariat is the grave digger of capitalism.” But the translator translated the last sentence directly, which caused an international scandal.

“We will bury you!” – The phrase instantly appeared in all American newspapers. Even in the popular Time magazine, an entire article appeared about it (Time, November 26, 1956 | Vol. LXVIII No. 22) If anyone wants to read the original, here is the link to the article.

The US diplomatic mission instantly sent a note to the USSR and Soviet diplomats had to hastily apologize and explain that Khrushchev’s phrase did not mean a direct threat of military action, but a revised postulate of Marx, which should be translated as “We shall be present at your funeral” (“We will be present at your funeral ”) or“ We shall outlive you ”(“ We will outlive you ”).

Later Khrushchev himself publicly apologized for the figure of speech and explained that he did not mean literally digging the grave, but that capitalism would destroy his own working class.

True, Khrushchev’s speech style has not changed, and already in 1959 he sought to “show the US Kuzkin’s mother.” Then, too, the translator was unable to correctly convey the expression and translated directly – “we shall show you Kuzka’s mother”. And in American society, it was believed that Kuzkina’s mother was a new nuclear bomb developed by the Soviet Union.

In general, simultaneous interpretation at the highest state meetings is a complicated matter. Here you can derail the whole country because of one wrong phrase.

The mistake in one word that caused the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki

The worst translator mistake that ever happened in world history occurred after the Potsdam Conference on July 26, 1945. The declaration in an ultimatum form put forward demands on the Japanese Empire to capitulate to World War II. In the event of failure, they were expected to “complete destruction.”

Three days later, Japanese Prime Minister Kantaro Suzuki said at a press conference (translated into English):

My thinking is that the joint 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 our fight to the end.

I think that [потсдамская] the joint declaration is essentially the same as earlier declarations. The Parliament of Japan does not consider that it has any special significance. We are just mokusatsu suru. The only alternative for us is to continue our struggle to the end.

Mokusatsu means “ignore”, “keep silent.” That is, the Prime Minister said that they simply will not say anything. A cautious response that involves complex diplomatic work.

But the word mokusatsu was translated into English as “we ignore that”.

Such an “unequivocal” response of the Japanese government was the cause of a peculiar act of intimidation of the Japanese by atomic bombing. On August 6, an atomic bomb with an equivalent of 15 kilotons was dropped on Hiroshima, and on August 9 a 21 kiloton bomb fell on Nagasaki.

According to official figuresdirect civilian casualties were 150,000 Hiroshima residents and 75,000 Nagasaki residents. But the real number of victims is much greater. According to various sources, the number of victims of radiation infection amounted to 450,000.

Yes, there is no subjunctive mood in history. But just imagine, if only one word was translated correctly, then perhaps there would be no bombing at all. Here is a comment about it from the US National Security Agency.

How Jimmy Carter turned on the policeman in Poland

Finish on a more fun note. In 1977, Democrat Jimmy Carter won the US election. In the first year of his presidency, he actively carried out a program of visits to other countries. In December, he visited Poland and delivered a speech.

True, there was one small problem – there were 17 translators in the White House, but nobody owned Polish. Then one of the freelancers was connected for the mission.

On the whole, Carter’s speech to the Poles was rather friendly. He appreciated the Polish Constitution of 1791, spoke about the plans of the United States and said that he would like to hear about the dreams of the Poles themselves.

But in the end, a little speech turned into a disaster. The translator made just a bunch of serious mistakes.

The innocuous phrase “when I left the United States” (“when I left the United States”) turned into “when I left the United States forever.” Naturally, in the context she was understood as “I left the USA and came to live with you.” A rash statement from the president of another country.

Instead of the phrase about the great value of the Polish Constitution of 1791 for human rights, the Poles heard that their constitution was ridiculous. But the apogee of absurdity was the phrase about the dreams of the Poles. “Desires” was translated as “a man’s desire for a woman”, so the phrase began to mean “I want to have sex with the Poles.”

The diplomatic mission of Poland sent a claim to the US Embassy. They realized that the problem was with the translator, and not with the president, but this did not in any way reduce the degree of scandal. As a result, diplomats had to apologize for the jambs of the translator for a long time.

Partly because of this situation, Poland’s relations with the United States were pretty cool until the end of Carter’s cadet as president.

Here is an article about it in the New York Times on December 31, 1977.

That is why translation and working with foreign languages ​​is a much more responsible matter than students usually imagine. A mistake in communicating with a friend can lead to a quarrel, and a mistake at the highest level can cause war or a pretty shame.

Learn English competently. And let’s hope that the presidents will always have top-notch translators. Then we will sleep calmer. And you can sleep even calmer if you learn English yourself 🙂

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