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When Translation Error Goes Nuclear
August 26, 2014 - By: - In: In the News / Awards, Language, Translation - Comments Off on When Translation Error Goes Nuclear

“All the sanctions that are related to Iran’s nuclear program should be lifted,” in exchange for Iranian cooperation against ISIS in Iraq, reported Agency France Press last week. Shock headline for sure, except for one small detail. That’s not what the Iranians said at all. They weren’t talking about the nation of Iraq, but Arak, Iran’s heavy-water reactor. The reactor is a hot topic in proliferation circles because the spent fuel can be used to enrich bomb-making plutonium.

The mistranslation was a result of an incorrect transcription by an Iranian news agency, according to Al monitor. “As Iranian Twitter user Pooria Asteraky pointed out, BBC Persian journalist Hadi Nili took a screenshot of the Iranian Mehr News Agency page that incorrectly transcribed the TV interview with the foreign minister. The transcript used “Iraq” in instances where Zarif said “Arak.”

The word Arak in Persian ends with a hard “k” sound and is usually pronounced “araak.” The word Iraq in Persian is usually pronounced with soft “gh” sound and usually pronounced “araagh” or “eraagh.”

US State Department translators hit the “reset” button over  the “almost unbelievable” statement, a spokesman told ABC. “We’ve looked at the language a couple of times, actually, and think he was not linking, in that specific quote, fighting ISIS in Iraq to lifting of Western sanctions. He was talking about making progress on Arak, the nuclear facility, to lifting of Western sanctions. Our Farsi speakers have taken a bunch of looks at it and think that he was referring to that. I’ll let him speak for himself, and if he wants to clarify and disagree with me — I am not a Farsi speaker.”

No challenge to date. Iran’s Foreign Minister had been talking about give and take related to the nuclear negotiations. Oops!

Sometimes translation error does go nuclear. Just ask the Japanese. As the sun was setting on the Japanese Empire towards the end of the Second World War, an unfortunate translation of mokusatsu led to the US’s decision to drop the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan.

The US had been waiting for a Japanese response to the Allied Forces’ demand for unconditional surrender. Japanese reporters asked the Japanese Premier, Kantaro Suzuki, about it in Tokyo. Suzuki responded with Mokusatsu, or  “no comment,” but his response was translated in the English press as “not worthy of comment.” The US interpreted this as a sign of contempt and carried out its threat of “prompt and utter destruction” by dropping the atomic bomb on Hiroshima.

Now that’s a translation error. The translator who missed the context of mokusatsu‘s use in a press conference made a horrible mistake that indirectly cost the lives of tens of thousands. Not likely to happen today, with bilingual web trolls guarding the integrity of translation on the Web. Keep on checking!

Found this story on the NSA site. I wouldn’t download it if I were you, btw.

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