Misunderstood word may have led to catastrophic outcome
The meaning of a word lost in translation can cause a variety of outcomes, ranging from the catastrophic – such as the detonation of atomic bombs – to the less physically devastating, such as increasing risks in Islamic finance.
The only time in history that nuclear weapons were used as an act of war was, possibly, due to the incorrect translation of one word.
In August 1945 the United States dropped the first atomic bomb on Japan’s Hiroshima followed by another on Nagasaki, resulting in the death of more than 135,000 people.
A month before, leaders from the US, the United Kingdom, Russia and China had given an ultimatum to Japan that would end the Second World War. They said that should Japan negatively respond, the result would be “prompt and utter destruction”. According to the US National Security Administration (NSA), reporters asked Japan’s premier at the time, Kantaro Suzuki, how he intended to respond.
His one-word reply, in Japanese, was: “mokusatsu”.
That word is composed of two separate characters. Moku symbolises “silent” and satsu is “kill”. His response was interpreted by foreign media outlets that the ultimatum was not worthy of a response. However, the premier had used that phrase many times previously, and intended it to mean “no comment”.
The NSA document entitled Mokusatsu: One Word, Two Lessons highlights the problems that translation by those unfamiliar with the nuances of a foreign culture and language may face.
“Many people, especially non-linguists, seem to feel that every word in one language has an exact counterpart, a perfectly equivalent match, in every other language,” the paper noted. The misunderstanding of this one word had grave consequences.
Still, the fault in this case also lay with the originator of the statement. The NSA said there would have been no translation problem had the Japanese premier used a more clear term. “However, politicians are notorious for preferring words that are either meaningless or so full of meanings that no one can be sure of just what they mean,” said the NSA report.
The same can often be said for business, particularly finance. Terms can be very unclear to the average person. To complicate matters, after converting the text from one language to another, the specific meaning is often lost.
Follow The National’s Business section on Twitter
Updated: July 12, 2015 04:00 AM