The art of translation is something we don't think about much—until something goes wrong. (Tweet it!) But history abounds with consequential mistranslations—“erroneous, intentional or simply misunderstood”—says Mark Polizzotti, author of Sympathy for the Traitor: A Translation Manifesto. (https://nyti.ms/2Ltlztr).
Nikita Khrushchev’s infamous 1956 statement—“We will bury you”—ushered in one of the Cold War’s most perilous periods. But it turns out the Soviet’s actual declaration was “We will outlast you.” And the response of Kantaro Suzuki, prime minister of Japan, to an Allied ultimatum in July 1945—days before Hiroshima—was conveyed to Harry Truman as “silent contempt” (“mokusatsu”), when it was actually intended as “No comment. We need more time.” Japan was not given more time.
Myriad examples go back through antiquity. But lately, the perils of potential mistranslation have taken on renewed urgency. Free-form tweets in one’s native idiom instantly reach a global audience. But the nature of tweets, with their fractured syntax and frequent idioms, can lend themselves to misinterpretation.
Careful and thorough reading of translated material can literally make the difference between war and peace. If we are aiming for a global audience, we must consider the difficulties that hastily crafted communications may pose to foreigners. Likewise, we must try to ensure that the translations we read and hear are accurate.
Have you ever been misled by a poor or incomplete translation? What were the consequences? To join the conversation, click "comments" above.
If you would like to read more about creating a habit around masterful communication, check out our book: Be Quiet, Be Heard: The Paradox of Persuasion