The National Security Agency in the US declassified a document which points to what is likely to be the worst translation mistake in history. Or, at least, it involves the mistranslation with the most serious consequences in history. Although you can never know what would happened without this error, it is very likely that the sad fate of Hiroshima has been the result of a huge error in Japanese into English translation.

The story is as follows: in July 1945, the allied countries meeting in Potsdam submitted a harshly -worded declaration of surrender terms. After their terms were translated from English into Japanese, they waited anxiously for the Japanese reply from the then Japanese Prime Minister, Kantaro Suzuki. This ultimatum demanded the unconditional surrender of Japan. The terms included a statement to the effect that any negative answer from Japan would invite “prompt and utter destruction.”

Meanwhile, newspaper reporters pressed the Prime Minister Suzuki in Tokyo to say something about Japan’s decision. No formal decision had been reached and therefore Suzuki, falling back on the politician’s old standby answer to reporters, replied that he was “withholding comment”.  The Japanese Primer Minister stated he “refrained from comments at the moment.” Mokusatsu was the key word to express his idea, a word that can be interpreted in several different ways but that is derived from the Japanese term for “silence”. mokusatsu derives from the Japanese word silence

As can be seen from the dictionary entry, the word can have other quite different meanings from those intended by Suzuki but the Japanese to English translation conveyed just one meaning.

Media agencies and translators interpreted the word “treat with silent contempt” or “take into account” (to ignore), as the categorical rejection by the Prime Minister. The Americans understood that there would never be a diplomatic end to the war and were naturally annoyed by what they considered the arrogant tone used in the Japanese translation of the Prime Minister’s response. International news agencies reported to the world that in the eyes of the Japanese government the ultimatum was “not worthy of comment.”

Mokusatsu, a word that we could very well translate as “no comment” nowadays, or “let me withhold comments for now” was translated as “let’s ignore it”.

The atomic bomb was launched on Hiroshima 10 days later.  A translation error that killed more than 70,000 people instantaneously and some 100,000 as a result of the destruction and radiation. Whoever it was who decided to translate mokusatsu by the one meaning and didn’t add a note that the word might also mean nothing stronger than “to withhold comment” did a horrible disservice to the people who read his translation, people who knew no Japanese, people who would probably never see the original Japanese text and who would never know that there was an ambiguous word used.  Other points of view, however, point fingers at the Prime Minister himself for using such an ambiguous term.

A copy of the declassified document can be downloaded from the link to the American NSA. Some of our staff has fortunate to visit the Peace Memorial Museum in Hiroshima. We have also scanned and extracted the text so the declassified document remains available from our site in the future.

[sdfile url= title="Download text document: mokusatsu"]



5 thoughts on “The worst translation mistake in history

  1. Malcolm X

    Not only there was a translation mistake, but a constant and deliberate effort to justify the dropping of the bomb.

    The translation part just played part on the media campaign. Even if justifying the throwing of the first bomb is very very very complicated. There was no reason for a second bomb in Nagasaki. And as the author of the article below points out, if the point was complete surrender, how come Japanese Emperor Hirohito was allowed to remain in power?

  2. K. Hamamoto

    The view in Japan is quite different to the predominant view of US military wisdom. People in the US are taught that the bombing saved many lives, but Japan was ready to surrender. They just did not know how: the emperor, the diet, the military, the population – which had been suffered Japanese militarism not like Europe, but quite undeservedly, too. Please refer to the Japanese version of what happened here:ポツダム宣言

    Congratulations on the post. I work for another translation company . You cover many interesting topics here.

  3. Hideaki Miura

    “Mokusatsu” has a meaning of “ignore” but having some nuance.
    In general this means “I heard of it but dare to keep silent to avoid to be involved in counterparty’s logic”.

    There are already many comments in the JP site about it.
    Anyway it’s a war when the power can kill people without punishment.
    Japan was stupid and responsible on it.
    It’s too political and complicated to explain.

  4. Hideaki Miura

    The fact was that there were not dictatorship in Japan, unlike in Italy and Germany.
    There were : Emperor, Army, Cabinet, Paliament, Journalism and voices of people.
    However, under the Emperor system no one had enough power to be responsible, and it’s tragedy.
    In those circumstances, to be right or wrong, the strong opinion leads the atmosphere.
    And no one had no conscious of clear responsibility.

    My personal opinion is that this kind of trends still exist in Japanese society.
    Under emperor everybody is equal, which is a good point of this country, but always vague.
    And another aspect is the language. It influences much to the culture.

    English language is like bricks laying, too clear to express delicate matters.


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