Historical Translation Mistakes that Cost Terrible Loss

A famous quote, “Translation is that which transforms everything so that nothing changes” might deliver a deep thought based on a certain occasion that happened that time. Indeed, translation is an act that makes language is understandable and a message is deliverable to other people who speak differently.  

Translation has been used for thousands of years as the first translated document was dated 2100 BC. Today, translation service has benchmarked an advancement for progressing faster than before. It will help so many countries, people, and parties to use an international network without hesitation due to language barriers. Yet, history has recorded some horrible events which happened because of translation mistakes that cost huge amounts of money and caused terrible loss of humanity. 

  • US$10mil for Do Nothing

Branding is such an important factor that can provide a great impact on company credibility and sustainability. In 2009, HSBC bank launched a new branding “Assume Nothing” for its service. This was delivered to make the customer feel comfortable for entrusting their money and business in this bank.  Yet, the word “assume nothing” was translated differently in many countries in Europe which English meaning of the word is “Do Nothing”. The company launched a new branding which cost $10 million because of the ambiguous translation.

  • Raise the Dead

International promotion is very crucial thus translation is involved to deliver the true intention to the target customers. Pepsi’s slogan “Come Alive with Pepsi” had caused sales to drop especially in China because this slogan was translated literally. In China, the phrase “come alive” has a cultural association which literally means bringing someone back from the dead. 

  • We Will Burry You

During the cold war, the United States and the Soviet Union were involved in political tension between both countries that were often resulted in propaganda and provocation.  In 1956, the Soviet pollical leader Nikita Khrushchev delivered a speech in front of western delegacies in Poland. In this speech, he uttered the sensational phrase “We will Burry You”. This was translated as a Soviet nuclear threat for its political counterparts, in this case, are the US and Europe. The media had gone mad as well as the governments. Sometime later, the sofiet politician made a clear statement that the phrase means “we will outlast you”. Without his clarification, a prominent devastating nuclear war was about to happen.

  • Mokusatsu

The Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings were in the darkest part of WW2 history. The US atom bomb was delivered in August 1945 to end the final phase of WW2. Some believed that this bombing was actually not inevitable, because it was a consequence of mistranslation. Back in July 1945, the Postdam meeting required Japan to submit a declaration of surrender. The document was written in English then was sent with a Japanese version. At the end of the ultimatum, the allied force stated that any negative answer would prompt destruction. During the waiting moment, the Japanese PM at that time Kantaro Suzuki stated an official response on their media “Mokusatsu” as it become popular and prompted multiple speculations in western media. 

The dictionary meaning of mokusatsu is silent or no comment implying that he had no particular statement during the interview moment. The statement got a mistranslation on western media that translate the word as “not worthy of comment”. This initiated a further action which saw Japan was not going to surrender and no way for any diplomatic conclusion. 

The translation mistake still happens every day. But from those cases, we find that translator error is not a mere small mistake as it can create further complications that can cost priceless lives value.  

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