The story of how a badly chosen translation of the Japanese word mokusatsu led to the United States decision to drop the world's first atomic bomb on Hiroshima is well known to many linguists. But perhaps it would be interesting to tell it again just in case some of my readers are unfamiliar with the word and the story behind it.
By July 1945, the Allies were ready to put an end on the war with Japan. They issued the Potsdam Declaration, demanding the unconditional surrender of Japan. The terms had included a statement to the effect that any negative answer would invite "prompt and utter destruction." Truman, Churchill, Stalin, and Chiang Kai-Shek stated that they hoped that Japan would agree to surrender unconditionally and thus prevent devastation of the Japanese homeland.
Japanese reporters were pretty eager to find out what the official government response was going to be, and they bugged Japanese Premier Kantaro Suzuki nonstop for a statement. Eventually, Suzuki called a news conference. Since no formal decision had been reached at the time, Suzuki, fell back on the one-size-fits-all answer to reporters and replied that he was withholding comment. He used the Japanese word mokusatsu, derived from the word for "silence."
However, the word has other meanings quite different from that intended by Suzuki. Alas, international news agencies saw fit to tell the world that in the eyes of the Japanese government the ultimatum was "not worthy of any comment", that they were “ignoring it in contempt”. U. S. officials, angered by the tone of Suzuki's statement decided on drastic measures. Within ten days the decision was made to drop the atomic bomb, the bomb was dropped, and Hiroshima was leveled.
What’s the morale of this story? As I said earlier, translation is NOT a commodity. A bag of rice is more or less the same no matter where you get it. But this is not the case with translations.
Almost every day, we are told by a company or client that another translation provider offers much lower fees. Everyone should note that, if a translation service company can offer far lower rates than its competitors, it is worth inquiring why. If a translation provider offers lower rates by skimping on proofreading, relying on sub-par translators, or by abusing machine translation, then the money saved could easily be canceled out by costs related to revising or even re-doing the translation from scratch.
It’s all about the risks you’re willing to take. The mokusatsu story is the extreme case, but always remember that a bad translation, especially when displayed to your own clients/partners, can have the effect of a bomb on your bottom line. If your brand image is important for you in your own language, it should be equally important when translated for foreign markets.
Do you treat translation like a commodity?
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