Lost in translationThe former Soviet Union succeeded in sending the world’s first satellite, Sputnik, into space in October 1957. Premier Nikita Khrushchev was elated and joked, “Now the Earth has become lighter than before [because Sputnik has left the planet].” A Korean news agency translated his words and sent it to all the Korean newspapers. But in its translation the Earth was now brighter. Of course, “lighter” did not mean brighter in this case, but lighter in weight. It was a typical mistake that a news agency pressed for time could make.
Wrong translations can be found everywhere. The Bible is one example: And again I say unto you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God. Here, in the original Aramaic, the word gamta, meaning rope, was wrongly translated as gamla, a camel. But instead of destroying the original meaning, the translation was evaluated as having expressed it better.
Misinterpretation can happen in translation from one language to another. A prime example is a July 1945 press conference held by Japanese Premier Kantaro Suzuki, when Japan was ready to surrender to Allied forces. However, he had decided to delay formally announcing it until Allied forces had been notified through official channels. He wanted to buy time to negotiate the terms of surrender.
However, the prime minister made a mistake at the press conference. To the Postdam Declaration that demanded unconditional surrender, he responded ambiguously, “The cabinet holds that it will ignore [mokusachu] the declaration.” He meant to say that he would for now defer from responding. However, the word mokusachu can be interpreted as either to “ignore” or “refrain from commenting.” Japanese media and the Tokyo English Broadcast interpreted it as the former — that the cabinet would reject the Postdam Declaration. Three days later, U.S. President Harry Truman signed the order to drop the atomic bomb on Japan. Had it not been for the misunderstanding and misinterpretation, the atomic bombing might have been avoided.
Recently, misinterpretation of a clause regarding the ban on using animal protein in livestock feed in the United States related to U.S. beef imports has fueled confusion. The problem was that the South Korean government misinterpreted a release in the U.S. federal gazette that announced a relaxation of the ban as a strengthening of rules on animal feed. Public opinion in Korea is seething. This is lamentable. Before crying out for intensive English education, the government should line up more English experts for its negotiating team.
The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
By Cho Hyun-wook [email@example.com]