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bY Translation Agency Japan: War and Mistranslations - The Vietnam and Iraq Wars, Deja vu?

Most people are aware by now that the Iraq War was launched on faulty intelligence, by an administration chomping at the bit to go after Saddam Hussein.

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We now know, of course, no WMD were ever found, and that infamous “45 minute” claim has been debunked as, well, bunk.

Flashback to August 1964 and the Gulf of Tonkin incident, generally regarded as the event that triggered the Vietnam War. Many historians have concluded Johnson launched the US into a devastating war that ultimately claimed over 1 million lives, based on faulty intelligence compounded by a series of mistranslations!

The New York Times reports in an October 2005 article titled Vietnam Study, Casting Doubts, Remains Secret that mistranslation of intelligence pointed to a second incident in the Gulf of Tonkin. Problem is,

most historians have concluded that never happened.

An intercept of a North Vietnamese transmission was erroneously translated as “we sacrificed two ships”, leading to the assumption of a second attack on US forces by North Vietnam. In some documents this is translated as “we sacrificed two comrades” in reference to the initial incident where the US Navy ship Maddox sank an enemy torpedo boat. These translation snafus were compounded when intelligence agents at the NSA falsified documents to conceal their mistakes.

President Johnson used this supposed incident to persuade Congress to pass the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution on Aug. 7, 1964, launching the Vietnam War. Historians believe that Johnson, who being pilloried as too soft on communists and at the same time eager to burnish his credentials in the looming presidential elections, was bent on escalating the conflict, regardless. However, it is quite conceivable Johnson would have had difficulty getting congressional authorization for war, but for the translation bloopers pointing to that supposed second incident.

The implications? The Vietnam War altered the course of American history and, by extension, world history. For example, the US was less inclined to intervene around the world in support of democracy and freedom. Indeed, leading up to the Iraq war, the media was awash with talk of a Vietnam style “quagmire” and the Vietnam Syndrome.

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

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1 &DISCUSS response(s)

  • 1 » Akiko Akiya (2012-08-22)

    Translation errors in wartime are especially regrettable due to the tremendous, unintended and far reaching implications. For example, the US is only now starting to clean up Agent Orange in Vietnam, which continues to create birth defects nearly a half century later.