The Role & Responsibility of Translators & Interpreters in World History

The Role & Responsibility of Translators & Interpreters in World History

Did you know that, in a matter of speaking, translators and interpreters hold the fate of the world on their shoulders?

Think about it! The leaders of this world don’t speak every language there is, and yet, they need to communicate with each other. And when they do, the only way their message gets through the other side is through intermediaries.

Well, these intermediaries are highly trained translators and interpreters whose job is to make sure all the participant parties understand each other. However, this is an incredibly difficult job, since most languages can’t be translated word for word and many subtleties and inferences can’t be passed on to a foreign-speaking party because of the language barrier.

Trying to sustain accurate communication between two people who don’t speak the same language is very similar to trying to translate literary works. Regardless of your knowledge of both languages, some meaning will be lost in translation.

As such, if you act as a translator or interpreter for public and governmental institutions that deal with sensitive issues such as peace negotiations, commercial treaties, international laws and regulations, worldwide events, and more, you bear a huge responsibility on your shoulders.

Sadly, this responsibility only becomes obvious when things go wrong and terribly wrong. Otherwise, things move in a natural direction, preferably without incidents.

Below we listed several examples of how things can go wrong when the translator or interpreter is not sufficiently trained to take over such an important job.

President Carter’s Speech in Poland

Back in 1977, President Carter took a trip to Poland and addressed the people in a speech that remained in history not for its power of inspiration but for its translation.

The State Department hired a Russian interpreter to translate the words of the President for the Polish people and the result was quite humorous. For instance, the President’s speech in Polish contained phrases such as “when I abandoned the USA” or “your lusts for the future”.

As you can imagine, the interpreter twisted the phrases “when I left the USA” or “your desires for the future”.

While this didn’t launch an international conflict, both the Polish and American media used this interpretation for their own amusement and to mock the President.

The Famous Treaty of Waitangi

Remember that we mentioned the responsibility held by a translator when it comes to treaties and state documents?

This pressure comes from real-life events such as the Treaty of Waitangi. The treaty was signed in 1840 between the British government and the Maori people of New Zealand. The Maori wanted protection from outlaws and the British wanted to expand their territory.

As such, they agreed to sign a treaty that regulated these issues. However, there was a difference between the two versions of the treaty (one for the British and one for the Maori people). The English version specified that the Maori were to “cede to Her Majesty the Queen of England absolutely and without reservation all the rights and powers of sovereignty” while the Maori version, which was translated for them by a British missionary, specified that they were not to give up sovereignty, but governance.

As a result, the Maori thought that the treaty will allow them the right to rule themselves, under a legal system imposed by the British (which was not the case). The conflict escalated and it is still under debate in our time.

The Hiroshima Bombing

As it turns out, one of the worse events in history can be associated with a mistake in translation (even though it is not entirely proven).

According to the story, the US government demanded Japan’s surrender in 1945, but the response they received from the Japanese prime minister contained the word “mokusatsu”. By using this word, he was asking for time to ponder the implications of a surrender (we are still thinking about it).

However, the word was translated as We ignore your request. The result is still discussed today and something that future generations will remember: the release of the atom bomb over Hiroshima.

A Few Final Words…

While we can’t put the blame entirely on translation or interpretation, the mistakes mentioned above show just how crucial it can be in a sensitive situation. World negotiations can be completely turned by a mistranslated word and conflicts can arise from documents that are not translated by highly trained specialists.

Overall, being a good translator is not just about knowing two or more languages. It’s also about understanding meanings and following subtleties that can overthrow delicate situations or change history.