4President Carter Creeps Out a Nation
Twenty years after Khrushchev's outburst, the Cold War was still raging and America was due for her own linguistic gaffe. Fortunately, President Jimmy Carter was just the man for the job. In 1973, Carter traveled to Poland to hold the United States' first-ever news conference in a communist country, one where he would be fielding questions from actual Communists. So the stakes of this little visit were mega-huge. Imagine President Barack Obama holding a news conference in Taliban country. Now imagine that the night before the huge news conference, Obama says he wants to have sex with the Taliban. Congratulations -- you just imagined Jimmy Carter's Poland visit.
"I appreciate the comment, but you will die for it"
Carter was speaking through a $150-a-day freelance translator who barely spoke Polish. The guy's mistakes started early on and never let up: When Carter opened with "I left the United States this morning," it got translated to, "I left the United States, never to return." When he said, "I have come to learn your opinions and understand your desires for the future," it was translated into, "I desire the Poles carnally." If the people of Poland weren't creeped out enough by Carter's apparently insatiable lust for some Polish sausage, the interpreter made things even more confusing by using archaic words and Russian syntax, and while he was at it, he made fun of the Polish constitution, too. Carter couldn't catch a break with this guy.
Via Wikimedia Commons
"The American president also asks if all of your country's walls are painted with the color of feces."
So that guy was fired, and a new translator was hired for a state banquet. Carter delivered the first line of his speech, paused for the translator ... and heard nothing. Carter said the next line, paused again, and again there was silence. Apparently Translator No. 2 was having the opposite problem -- he couldn't understand Carter's English -- and so he decided silence was the best option, forcing the Polish leader's own translator to step in and pick up the slack. When Carter finally left the country, he was the butt of a thousand Polish jokes.
Via Wikimedia commons
Question: How many Jimmy Carters does it take to screw in a light bulb?
Answer: Two -- one to abandon it and one to know it carnally.
3The Word That Dropped the Atom Bomb
By July 1945, the Allies were ready to put the kibosh on the war in Japan. So they issued the Potsdam Declaration, demanding the unconditional surrender of Japan and threatening "utter destruction." Then the Allies waited like a sixth-grader waiting for his first "Do you like me?" response.
Aw, isn't that so sweet?
Unsurprisingly, Japanese reporters were pretty eager to find out what the official government response was going to be, and consequently they bugged Japanese Premier Kantaro Suzuki nonstop for a statement. Eventually, Suzuki caved in, called a news conference and said the equivalent of, "No comment. We're still thinking about it." The reporters had to go back unsatisfied, the Japanese government eventually came to a decision and told the U.S., and everything worked out fine.
Yep, everything's fine!
As you may have guessed, that isn't what happened, and it's all because Suzuki used the word "mokusatsu" as his "no comment" response. The problem is, "mokusatsu" can also mean "we're ignoring it in contempt," and that translation was what was relayed back to the American government. After the steam stopped coming out of Harry Truman's ears, the U.S. revealed the real reason it issued the Potsdam Declaration by dropping the atom bomb on Hiroshima 10 days after Suzuki's comment, and then again on Nagasaki three days later.
Via Wikimedia Commons
America doesn't sweat the details.
It's worth noting that if Suzuki had just fully explained himself and said, "Let me get back with you on that," none of this would have happened. But whether it's a politician's poor word choice or a translator's failure to read down to the alternate definitions of a word, the only translation the Americans got was, "Japan has just issued the most ill-advised 'Bring it on' ever made."