Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) once said that, “The turn of a sentence has decided the fate of many a friendship and, for aught we know, the fate of many a kingdom.”
The worst such occurrence of which I am aware happened near the end of WWII. Richard Lederer tells it much more concisely than I could so I share his account below:
Victory in Europe came on May 8, 1945, and Japanese resistance on the island of Okinawa ended seven weeks later. On July 26, 1945, Churchill, Truman, and Stalin issued the Potsdam Declaration: Japan had to surrender unconditionally or accept the consequences.
The Japanese cabinet seemed to favor a settlement but had to overcome two major obstacles to compliance–the tenacity of the Japanese generals and the pride of the citizens of Japan. Needing time, the Imperial Cabinet issued a statement explaining that they were giveing the peace offer mokusatsu.
Mokusatsu can mean either “We are considering it” or “We are ignoring it.” Most Japanese understood that the reply to the surrender ultimatum contained the first meaning, but there was one notable exception. The man who prepared the English language translation of the statement for the Domei news agency used “ignore” in the broadcast monitored by the English-speaking press. To lose face by retracting the news release was unthinkable to the proud Japanese. They let the statement stand.
Believing that their proposal had been ignored or rejected and unaware that the Japanese were still considering the ultimatum, the Allies proceeded to open the atomic age. On July 28, 1945, American newspapers printed stories reporting that the Japanese had ignored the peace offer, and on August 6 President Harry Truman ordered an atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. A new era in human history was irretrievably begun.
The destructive power of the bomb was an emblem of the destructive potential of language misused and misunderstood. The dead and missing from the bombing of Hiroshima numbered 92,000. Another 42,000 victims were claimed three days later by the blast at Nagasaki. Concurrently, Russia declared war on Japan and invaded Manchuria.
In the twenty days that followed the confusion about mokusatsu more than 150,000 men, women, and children were lost. One word misinterpreted.
[Richard Lederer, The Miracle of Language. NY: Simon & Schuster, 1991. pages 82-83]
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The following are links to my previous posts on translation misunderstandings: