Costly Interpretation Errors


Interpretation is an Art. An experienced professional interpreter studies not only subject matter, but also the speakers and their professional, political, and family background, plus the audience to which the message is intended. An interpreter must learn about geopolitical, technical, historical, social, and economic context of what is being expressed. A professional must be capable of elegant rendition in any subject, under any amount of pressure. Under these circumstances, we can all make mistakes, like any other human being. There are however errors, that are just too costly.

The Hiroshima Atomic Bomb

A few days after the United States ordered the unconditional surrender of the Japanese Empire during the month of July of the year 1945, Kantaro Suzuki, Head of State of Japan, answered a question presented by a journalist: “I will not respond at this time, we are thinking it over”, but the interpreter understood otherwise ant translated: “We are ignoring them with contempt”. Just a few days later the Enola Gay was dropping the atom bomb over the city of Hiroshima.

Carter loves the Polish

During an official state visit by President Jimmy Carter to Poland, he asked the Polish people about their hopes and dreams for the future. But his interpreter understood and translated that “he felt a carnal desire for the Polish”.  Carter was surprised without understanding why the rejection from the audience.  It was impossible to try to fix the damage to his political image.

During the cold war

In a speech addressing western authorities at the Russian Embassy in Warsaw, President Nikita Kruschev said “we will survive you”.  The interpreter translated “we will destroy you”. Certainly, nuance matters.

Toned Down

At a G7 Summit. A western leader spoke to Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in a not very respectful manner, but the interpreter toned down the insult to a point that Putin congratulated and thanked the speaker.  The story tells that upon returning to Russia the interpreters were arrested.   

Wiped out from the Map

During a speech by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2006, he expressed “any regime occupying Jerusalem should most go from the page of time” as he tried to calm tensions in the Middle East. The interpreter translated “I wish Israel would be wiped out from the map.”