14. History’s Greatest Translation Screwup
History’s most consequential translation error took place against the background of the Potsdam Declaration, in the summer of 1945. The Proclamation Defining Terms for Japanese Surrender was issued by the Allies on July 26th, 1945, just ten days after the Manhattan Project bore fruit, and America had successfully tested history’s first atomic bomb. The United States, along with her allies, issued a blunt “or else” statement, calling for the surrender of all Japanese armed forces. It was an ultimatum, warning the Japanese that if they did not surrender – and surrender soon, at that – they would face “prompt and utter destruction“. The Potsdam Declaration’s terms were hotly debated within the Japanese government. Subsequently, Prime Minister Kantaro Suzuki stated at a press conference that Japanese policy towards the Potsdam Declaration would be one of “mokusatsu“.
Mokusatsu was a Japanese word which meant that Prime Minister Suzuki had received the message and that he was giving it serious consideration. Unfortunately, Japanese is a subtle language – sometimes, as in this case, too subtle – in which the same word could have a bunch of different meanings. One of the possible different meanings for mokusatsu – and one which the Japanese Prime Minister did not intend – is to “contemptuously ignore”. It was that latter meaning that American translators gave to President Harry Truman. International news agencies reported to the world that the Japanese government’s response was that the ultimatum was “not worthy of comment”. 10 days later, the B-29 Enola Gay flew from Tinian to drop an atomic bomb on Hiroshima. A few days later, the Bockscar dropped another atomic bomb on Nagasaki.