By July 1945, in the midst of World War II, the allies were ready to end the war in Japan by any way possible. So they issued the Potsdam Declaration, demanding the immediate and unconditional surrender of Japan, threatening ‘utter destruction’ if Japan refused. When Japanese Premier Kantaro Suzuki finally made a statement to the press of ‘mokusatsu’, he meant it to mean ‘no comment, we are still thinking about it.’
Unfortunately, mokusatsu can also be taken to mean, ‘we're ignoring it in contempt,’ and this is the translation that was taken back to the American government. It’s no surprise then that 10 days later the U.S. dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, then on Nagasaki three days after that. Apparently, President Truman took offense to being contemptuously ignored - go figure!
The medical field is another area where improper translations can have serious life-threatening consequences. In diverse areas like New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, doctors and patients often speak different languages, which can result in serious consequences. One such example involved a young Hispanic man who collapsed complaining of feeling ‘intoxicado’, and the man was treated for drug and alcohol overdose. However, had the translator been aware that the patient was actually complaining of feeling nauseated, the doctors might have had time to identify the blood clot in his brain that ultimately resulted in the patient becoming quadriplegic!
And if you think most medical translation mistakes happen in the hospital, think again. The majority of them actually occur in pharmacies. In 2009, several states began requiring pharmacies to provide prescription translations upon request. Unfortunately most relied upon cheap computer translations which resulted in serious errors including a blood pressure patient who was told to take their medication 11 times a day because the word ‘once’ means 11 in Spanish.
A Big Difference
And now for the coup de grace: most people know that Mandarin Chinese is an extremely complicated language, with each written word being assigned a character, and a great many number of words that sound the same but have different meanings. During the mid-20th century, an easier-to-learn method called Pinyin was developed. This method grouped similar sounding words into the same character. One unfortunate result comes from the use of the sound gan.
One variation of the sound means ‘dry’ and is commonly used in supermarkets, however another variation results in one American slang term for sexual intercourse. Due to the proliferation of machine translation, this has resulted in many Chinese to English translations giving the impression that the Chinese population has only one thing on their collective minds.
As you can see, having the correct translated text can make all the difference between life or death, war or peace, and making love, not… pancakes.