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Is This The World's Most Tragic Translation?

Hiroshima has become synonymous with the first ever theater deployment of nuclear weapons and the horrors of nuclear war. What most folks don’t realize, though, is that the decision to field “Little Boy”, as that weapon was called, was, well, lost in translation.

Mistranslations: Hiroshima atomic bombing!

That’s right -- A translation blooper! There may never have been, nor will there probably ever be, another mistranslation that changes the world as much.

All it took is one word - mokusatsu. Here is the dictionary definition of mokusatsu:

v. take no notice of; treat (anything) with silent contempt; ignore [by keeping silence]; remain in a wise and masterly inactivity.

Let’s back up here a moment and put this into context. The victorious allied leaders (Truman, Churchill, Stalin, and Chiang Kai-Shek) in July 1945 at Potsdam called on Japan to unconditionally surrender. The hope was to avoid unnecessary causalities and the complete destruction of the Japanese homeland. (Truman had already received en route to Potsdam a message that the weapon had tested “husky”.)

After initially refusing to comment on the allies’ demand as no official decision had been reached, Japanese Prime Minister Kantaro Suzuki told reporters that he was withholding comment - mokusatsu. This was an unfortunate choice of words in reaching for the politician’s fallback response of “no comment.” The translation “not worthy of comment” (see definition above) was promptly picked up by media agencies the world over. Angered, American officials felt a stern response would be appropriate. Little Boy did its job, Hiroshima was flattened, and the rest is, as they say, history.

Few, if any, would disagree that this truly is the “world’s most tragic translation,” as dubbed by the Quinto Lingo magazine (January 1968).

What about the implications of this mistranslation, though? Would Japan be the model of democracy it is today, bearing in mind a surrender absent the threat of total nuclear annihilation would have left Japan in a slightly stronger bargaining position at the end of the war? Would Japan be the steadfast US ally, and the U.S.-Japan alliance the bulwark of regional stability, it is today? Did the awesome power of the A-bomb demonstrated at Hiroshima provide the impetus for other nations to develop nuclear weapons?

Think this translation blooper has had the most dramatic impact on history? Register your vote!

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About the Author
Ivan Vandermerwe is the CEO of SAECULII YK, owner of Tokyo Translation Services Japan Visit SAECULII for the latest professional case studies, articles and news on Japanese Translation Services

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7 &DISCUSS response(s) so far ↓

  • 1 » Akiko Akiya (2012-08-26)

    The word "mokusatsu" is way too strong and negative to translate as "no comment". I don't know the preferred expressions of era Japanese politicians, but nobody uses this expression in everyday conversation. I didn't know this side story -- It's most sensational to me.
  • 2 » Shoko Malsom (2012-08-26)

    On the contrary, I wonder what kind of international relationships we would have had if the word was translated correctly...
  • 3 » Mayuko N (2012-08-31)

    Wow, there are so many stories where things went wrong because of mistranslation & translation bloopers...Any feel good stories about the good that comes from professional translation out there?
  • 4 » Y.Kagami (2012-09-22)

    Thought and expression of thought is a funtion of language, which is defined by culture. Seems that misunderstandings take root way before the mistranslation, in some cases.
  • 5 » Claude (2015-10-09)

    Would Japan have been such a strong ally after the war had we not incinerated so many children? I don't see why not. Except for an oil war in the early 1940s, Japan has always been a strong friend to America. The cultures are complementary, so we've always been able to work together. Japan might have a stronger military presence, such as we're cutrrently trying to get them to adopt, but Japan would not have been in a stronger position back then because of the threat of nuclear annihilation. The Soviets were coming down the Kuriles and threatening them with physical annihilation, forcing them to accept whatever terms we asked in order to get our protection from the Russians.
  • 6 » Steven (2015-10-14)

    There are many horrors of war, and the decision to drop the atomic bomb will be forever questioned. But this alleged "mistranslation" did not cause the bomb to be dropped. The only thing that would have stopped the United States from using it was absolute surrender by the Japanese. They were not told specifically about the bomb, but the Potsdam Declaration demanded immediate unconditional surrender, or there would be "prompt and utter destruction." The Japanese government clearly heard this and had several opportunities to respond, such as via diplomatic channels. They chose not to.
  • 7 » Martin Page (2016-02-16)

    Note on the intended meaning of ‘ mokusatsu’. On 27th July 1945 at 10:30 am at a meeting of the inner cabinet, it was decided to wait and see what the response would be from the Russians. As the Japanese public was aware in part of the Potsdam declaration, Suzuki the prime minister was pressured by the military into giving a public statement. This he did at 4 pm the following day. Meantime Togo the foreign minister sent a telegram to Sato the ambassador to Moscow. This was intercepted and decoded by the Americans Ref. No. 944 by ‘Magic’. It is titled Japan ‘studying.’ It reads; ‘As a counter-measure in response to the Joint Declaration, we are adopting a policy of careful study’. Given the contextual nature of the Japanese language, to wait in masterly silence, may well be the meaning that Suzuki intended that afternoon.

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