Five Politically Disastrous Mistranslations

It’s only the kind of misunderstanding that can lead to nuclear war
Five Politically Disastrous Mistranslations

If you get far enough in politics, you’re going to end up talking to someone who speaks a language that you don’t, and until Google Translate gets better, that’s a disaster waiting to happen. If you don’t know why, take a look at the lyrics of Smash Mouth’s “All Star” translated to Aramaic and back. Or just read on, because it turns out even the best translators governments can buy don’t come with a “100 percent won’t destroy the world” money-back guarantee.

The Pope Called Priests in Training a Bunch of F-Slurs

Pope Francis has been by far the most progressive pope when it comes to LGBTQ issues, which isn’t saying a ton. Like, he’s gone on record that gay people are not, in fact, children of Satan, but he still doesn’t think they should be priests. That was the matter at hand during a 2024 meeting with Italian bishops, when Francis used an Italian word considered highly offensive to gay people to refer to the current state of seminaries. 

Basically, he said they were full of man love, but in a more hate-crimey way. Francis, who grew up speaking Spanish in Argentina, may not have understood the full meaning of the word, which would make sense considering his previous “queerness is just alright with me” stance. It’s also not like it hasn’t happened before.

President Carter Hit on Poland

During what was supposed to be a routine visit to Poland in 1977, President Jimmy Carter gave what was supposed to be a boring speech about how happy he was to be in Poland, having just left America, and how excited he was to learn more about what Poland wanted for its future. Instead, his translator told the assembly that Carter had “abandoned” the U.S. because he “desires the Poles carnally” and wants to know their “lusts for the future.” It turned out the translator was some rando working part time for $150 a day, which is great money for having no idea what you’re doing.

Khrushchev Threatened to ‘Bury’ the West

A literal scare quote about communism falsely attributed to former Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev recently went around social media, but in 1956, something he actually said riled up an already blacklist-happy West. At a reception for a Polish politician, he was quoted as saying, “Whether you like it or not, history is on our side. We will bury you.” Invocations of shovels and dirt are generally pretty menacing, but he didn’t mean it as a threat. 

“What I had in mind was the outlook for the development of human society,” he later said. “Socialism will inevitably succeed capitalism.” Not long after, he addressed the U.N. to call for the opposite of violence, “a gradual disarmament and an end to the Cold War.” Fortunately, it only lasted another 30 years or so.

Ilhan Omar Supposedly Claimed to Be ‘Somalian First’

In 2024, some of the crazier congresspeople got all up in arms over a clip of Minnesota representative Ilhan Omar addressing Somali constituents, claiming she said she was “Somalian first, Muslim second.” A Minnesota newspaper had to wrangle up its own translators to confirm that she’d actually said, “We are people who know that they are Somali and Muslim,” and Omar pointed out that “Somalian” isn’t even the correct term for a person from Somalia. “If you are gonna talk about us, at least try to get our ethnicity right,” she said.

The ‘Mokusatsu’ Incident Led to the Bombing of Hiroshima

In July 1945, World War II was almost over. Nobody knew that yet, but the Allies were kind of hoping for it, so they gave Japan an ultimatum: surrender or “swift and absolute destruction.” Prime Minister Kantaro Suzuki didn’t respond immediately, but the media kept hassling him about it, so he gave a statement that amounted to “no comment.” The word he used, however, was “mokusatsu.” It has several different possible meanings, from “I can’t say at this time” to “I’m not even dignifying that bullshit with a response.” 

You can probably guess which one the media went with. Would we have dropped the bomb regardless? Maybe. We’ve all seen Oppenheimer; we know how hyped the U.S. was to use it. They just really didn’t need a push.

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