Many people assume that if others can speak a language, they can translate it. If you are talking about simple sentences such as, “I would like some beer,” the answer is probably correct. If you are talking about business, technical or political issues, incorrect translations have led to extremely serious consequences.
On August 2, 1964, North Vietnamese (DRV) torpedo boats attacked the USS Maddox in the Gulf of Tonkin off the North Vietnamese coast. During a chase, the US damaged all three of the attacking boats. On August 4th, the US National Security Agency intercepted a DRV communication that said, “we sacrificed two comrades,” announcing two casualties. The phrase was translated instead as “we sacrificed two ships,” which led the US to think that a second attack had occurred. By coincidence, shortly after intercepting the communication, the Maddox and the USS Turner Joy fired on what they believed was another DRV attack. It was determined two decades later that the incident was actually a misreading of sonar signals and no attack had occurred, but the mistranslation gave the impression of an escalation by DRV forces.
It remains unclear whether the mistranslation was deliberate or unintended. Nevertheless, President Johnson used that misinformation and the second “phantom” DRV attack to ask Congress to authorize military escalation against Vietnam resulting in losses of almost 60,000 Americans and over 2 million civilians.
World War II
In July 1945, the Allies presented Imperial Japan with an ultimatum for total surrender or face “prompt and utter destruction.” The Japanese responded with the word “mokusatsu” whose meaning is ambiguous and includes the character for “to become silent.” In essence, Japan’s intention was to withhold comment while considering the ultimatum. The translation broadcast to the world said instead that it was “not worthy of comment.” And that apparent rejection led around two weeks later to the dropping of atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, resulting in 200,000 direct deaths.
On a lighter note, Braniff, a US airline, in 1987 launched an ad campaign called “Fly in Leather” to promote its luxury seats. This slogan was translated for flights to Mexico as “vuela en cuero,” which sounds like Spanish slang for “fly naked,” not exactly the enticement the airline intended.
Not a mistranslation, but a sign for the times outside a bar
“Beer is now cheaper than gas. Drink. Don’t drive.”
Translations are a serious matter. Whether they are older or recent, critical mistakes can occur when companies seek a cheap and quick solution or governments use cheap or inexperienced linguists. And yes, similar mistakes still do happen for the same reasons.
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