The best op piece today: “Why Mistranslation Matters”

In the New York Times (last page opinion section — it should have been more to the front) Mark Polizzotti tells a couple of stories that really startled me.

Brace yourselves, because our knowledge about famous statements is wrong.

For one:

Nikita Khrushchev’s infamous statement in 1956 — “We will bury you” — ushered in one of the Cold War’s most dangerous phases, one rife with paranoia and conviction that both sides were out to destroy the other. But it turns out that’s not what he said, not in Russian, anyway. Khrushchev’s actual declaration was “We will outlast you” — prematurely boastful, perhaps, but not quite the declaration of hostilities most Americans heard, thanks to his interpreter’s mistake.

For another:

The response of Kantaro Suzuki, prime minister of Japan, to an Allied ultimatum in July 1945 — just days before Hiroshima — was conveyed to Harry Truman as “silent contempt” (“mokusatsu”), when it was actually intended as “No comment. We need more time.” Japan was not given any.

Obviously, these mistranslations changed the course of history.

I was glad Polizzotti mentions William Tyndale, one of my heretic heroes, whose translation of the Bible into English eventually led to his immolation for heresy. Tyndale’s big mistake was not a single word or phrase. His grave error was making the Bible accessible to the common man. The church didn’t like that. If a regular person who knew how to read could interpret the Bible on his own, he could challenge his priest’s hegemony. He could argue. He could rebel.

This piece reminded me of how a mistranslation of a single word could have led to the difference between second degree murder (unpremeditated intent to kill) or criminally negligent homicide.

It’s long, so I’ll do it tomorrow.


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