Translation and Interpreting in 150+ Languages
Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe speaks to the opening of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, on Jan. 22.
The Interpreter Who Almost Started a War
February 6, 2014 - By: - In: In the News / Awards, Language - Comments Off on The Interpreter Who Almost Started a War

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was accused of trying to start a war with China after he compared the two countries to WWI enemies. In a press conference at the World Economic Forum press conference in Davos last month Abe was quoted in the press describing current Japan/China’s tension as a “similar situation” to that of Britain and Germany before they went to war 100 years ago. Critics condemned his remarks as “imprudent.”

As China and Japan confront each other over a few strategic islets,  tensions are running high in the South East China Sea. Statesmen are expected to tread carefully. Critics fear that Abe’s  inflammatory comments against military competition between the two powers could send the world up in flames.

But Tokyo was mystified  by the complaints. Abe spokesman Yoshihide Suga quickly denied that the Japanese prime minister thought that war is inevitable. “As you can see, Abe basically said things should not become like they were during World War I. I have no idea why it was misinterpreted in that way,” said Suga a few days after the conference.

Japanese listeners knew from the start that Abe had said no such thing, confirmed with release of the Japanese transcript. The inflammatory addition was the interpreter’s own creative contribution, which now has put him(her?) and his employer in the hot seat.

The South China Morning Post reports this week that Japan’s Foreign Ministry has announced officially that Abe’s comments were embellished, the Asahi Shimbun and the Sankei Shimbun reported at the weekend.

“The Asahi said the ministry had cautioned the firm and the translator. A foreign ministry official said that the ministry had given the firm a performance review, but declined to give details.” I think we can safely assume that it was a somber meeting.

Armchair assessment: Sometimes live interpreting just goes south. It’s a tough break when it does. This error sounds like a slip-up rather than a bad hire, like that crazy sign-language imposter/interpreter  at the Mandala memorial service.

What I do know is that the China/Japan diplomatic language beat is tough. I learned about this from the Japanese Foreign Ministry official who worked as the lead Japanese=Chinese interpreter back in the days when Abe’s dad, Shintaro, was Prime Minister. Styles of discourse and rules of courtesy made good communication a challenge that depends a great deal on the personalities and experiences of each individual leader. There was lot of room for misunderstanding. Even meticulous planning for live events cannot prevent all error.