6 Mistranslations That Changed The World

#3. The 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.

Istockphotos
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."

#2. Killer Medical Mistranslations

As part of our ongoing attempt to make you terrified of the people who want to save your life, we now turn our attention to the wacky world of medicine. The deal here is that in places with high ethnic diversity -- like, say, New York -- oftentimes the doctors don't speak the same language as their patients, and consequently they have to employ translators. Unfortunately, these translators are mostly just translators, not medical professionals, and that becomes a problem when they have to make snap judgments. One particularly dramatic example of the problem occurred when a young Hispanic man collapsed after complaining of feeling nauseated, or "intoxicado." The translator took this to mean "intoxicated" and assumed the guy was shitfaced, and consequently he was treated for an alcohol and drug overdose.

Getty
"You're sure he said his lungs are filled with penises?"

But it turned out that his nausea was actually due to a blood clot in his brain, which resulted in quadriplegia. If the translator had bothered to clarify that one ambiguous word, the doctors would have had more time to save the guy. But hey, how are American hospitals supposed to know what the word for "stomachache" is in an obscure language like Spanish, which is spoken only by 35 million U.S. residents?

Not all medical mistranslation mishaps happen in the emergency room, though -- in fact, the vast majority occur in pharmacies. Back in 2009, a whole bunch of states passed laws requiring pharmacies to provide translations of their prescriptions to people who need them. Since pharmacies, like most other businesses, are apparently run by cheap bastards, a whole lot of them just used computer programs to do the translations -- a study in the Bronx found that only three percent of pharmacies use professional translators.

Getty
"Your what are on fire? I'm sorry sir I don't know what pantalones are."

That same study tested the translation programs used by pharmacies and found that over half of the prescriptions produced contained serious errors. And these errors pop up on real prescriptions all the time: "By mouth" is changed to "by little," "two times" is changed to "two kiss," and in one spectacularly disquieting case, the instructions for blood pressure medicine caused a man to take it 11 times a day instead of once because "once" in Spanish is "11."

Photo.com
"Just take 416 of these and call me in 72 years."

One doctor studied the transcripts of 13 pediatric visits of Spanish-speaking patients, six of which involved official professional translators and seven of which involved "ad hoc" interpreters such as family members and nurses. Hope you're sitting down for the results:

The official interpreters made 231 errors; 53 percent of them were judged to have the potential to cause clinical problems. The ad hoc interpreters made 165 errors, and 77 percent of them were potentially dangerous.

The lesson here? If you speak only Spanish, for the love of God don't get sick.

#1. GAN4 Fucks Up China

You know Chinglish? The terribly-translated-from-Chinese-to-English signs that the Internet loves? Well, a good half of them can trace their origins to one character, GAN4:


This asshole.

To explain what went wrong here, we're going to have to back up and give you a quick crash course in Mandarin. As you may know, Mandarin Chinese is a ridiculously complicated language, with different characters for each and every word in the traditional written form. It also has a whole lot of homophones -- words that sound similar but have different meanings. There's even a poem called "Lion-Eating Poet" made up of nothing but 92 variations on the syllable "shi." But since this is all absurdly hard to learn, back in the mid-20th century an alternative called Pinyin was developed that simplified the written form by clumping together similar-sounding words into the same character.

Via Wikimedia commons
You see? Simple!

So what does that have to do with GAN4? Well, as you may have guessed, GAN4 isn't pronounced "ganfor" but is rather one of several Mandarin words represented by the sound "gan," and in Pinyin, all the GANs correspond to a single character. Which wouldn't be such a big deal, except GAN1 means "dry" and is commonly used in grocery stores, while GAN4 means "fuck." You can guess how that plays out:

Via languagelog

Plenty more can be found with a simple GIS search. The most plausible explanation here is that store owners are using a shitty translation program that automatically converts any GAN into "fuck," which seems like a pretty serious oversight to us -- it would be like if an English-to-Chinese converter constantly translated "runs" as the Chinese equivalent of "diarrhea," regardless of context.

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