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The 3 translation errors that led to war in Iraq, Hiroshima and Vietnam

Iraq, Hiroshima and Vietnam have more in common than the tragedies of war; in fact, they might have turned out rather differently if the world had paid attention to one minor detail…

Mistranslation is often amusing. Badly translated menus snapshotted on holiday spread across social media in minutes. But what happens when context is more important than what you’ll eat for the main course?

In politics, that’s even more significant. A simple mistake can lead into an act of war.

2003 Invasion of Iraq: Google Translate and Nigerian Uranium

28 January 2003. George W. Bush, President of the United States, addressed Congress in his State of the Union speech. For most of his long speech, he outlined the justifications to invade Iraq where he confidently stated that “the British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa” to develop a nuclear bomb.

A couple of months later, the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, and Poland invaded Iraq.

However, as the world would soon come to realise, Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction, no nuclear program, and there was no uranium from Africa, as initially thought. What George W. Bush stated in his State of the Union speech was not accurate. So how did that happen?

Well, according to Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Seymour M. Hersh, partially because “the CIA had recently received intelligence showing that, between 1999 and 2001, Iraq had attempted to buy five hundred tons of uranium oxide from Niger, one of the world’s largest producers” (read the full article here).

The Central Intelligence Agency took more than 3 weeks to translate and analyse the documents, which were considered highly classified and briefed only to the highest levels of American and British governments in secure facilities.

But that story quickly fell apart when Mohamed ElBaradei, the director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) informed the public that the documents in question were false. One senior I.A.E.A. official went further:

“These documents are so bad that I cannot imagine that they came from a serious intelligence agency. It depresses me, given the low quality of the documents, that it was not stopped. At the level it reached, I would have expected more checking… They could be spotted by someone using Google.”

It’s tempting to think that if the documents had been seen and translated sooner, the build-up to war might have been averted.

Hiroshima’s atomic bomb: “no comment”?

26 July 1945. The United States, the United Kingdom, and China sent an ultimatum demanding the surrender of all Japanese troops to end World War II. In this document, they stated that if Japan did not surrender they would face "prompt and utter destruction".

The ultimatum was then translated from English to Japanese, while the Allied Forces waited impatiently for an answer from the Empire of Japan.

Pressured by newspaper reporters in Tokyo, Japan’s Prime Minister Suzuki had to say something about the ultimatum, even though no formal decision had been taken. Therefore, Suzuki replied that he “refrained from comments at the moment.” This would have been the correct translation, however, the international news agencies reported something else.

According to this article written by State Senator John J. Marchi, for the New York Times in 1989, there was one word which caused the misunderstanding. “Mokusatsu” was the word used to express Suzuki’s idea, “a word that can be interpreted in several different ways but that is derived from the Japanese term for ‘silence’”.

So, instead of saying something like the Japanese prime minister was “withholding comment”, the media reported to the world that to the Japanese government the ultimatum was “not worthy of comment.

What then followed is in every history book: on 6 August 1945, the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima.

effects hiroshima bomb
Credits: U.S. Navy Public Affairs Resources Website

The War on Vietnam: the Gulf of Tonkin Incident

2 August 1964. North Vietnamese torpedo boats attacked the destroyer USS Maddox. The American ship had been cruising around the Tonkin Gulf when three North Vietnamese patrol boats began to chase the Maddox. In the end of the chase, the Americans sunk one of the North Vietnamese boats and managed to escape with no casualties.

Two days later, on 4 August 1964, the National Security Agency (NSA) intercepted communications from the North Vietnamese and concluded that another attack had occurred.

However, according to the NSA historian, Robert J. Hanyok, that transmission was incorrectly translated. The phrase, “we sacrificed two comrades” was translated as “we sacrificed two ships.” This mistake misled the US into thinking that a second battle had taken place and that the North Vietnamese had lost two ships.

The NSA then refused to correct the mistake and destroyed the source material. Meanwhile, President Lyndon B. Johnson cited the supposed attack to convince Congress to authorise broad military action in Vietnam.

The world would never be the same.