Mokusatsu or Always blame the translator

Mokusatsu, v. take no notice of; treat (anything) with silent contempt; ignore [by keeping silence]; remain in a wise and masterly inactivity. - Kenkyusha's New Japanese - English Dictionary, p. 1129.

The Johnson column in the 19th June 2021 issue of the Economist is entitled „Only Translate“ and has the promising subheading „Translators are the unacknowledged facilitators of the world“. But, rather disconcertingly, the article is about translation errors, not minor ones, but the really serious kind. These were picked out from a new book by Anna Aslanyan, „Dancing on Ropes. Translators and the Balance of History“, which is about the importance of translators and interpreters on the world stage.

The first of the two in the Johnson column concerns the mis-translation of the Italian astronomer Schiaparelli’s „canals“ on planet Mars, when actually they were simply straight lines, or natural trenches, not the work of alien engineers built for irrigation purposes. In fact, it was found later that they did not even exist but were an optical illusion. These „canali“ being rendered into English as „canals“ mislead people into believing that Mars was inhabited, and the term „Martian“ entered the vocabulary to mean alien life forms. Thus, a translator picking the wrong out of two possible English words is the root of an enormous misconception.

The second, even more serious error, in fact one with a catastrophic outcome, is the poor choice of the translation into English of the Japanese prime minister’s (Kantaro Suzuki) response to the Potsdam Declaration which caused the United States to drop the atom bomb on Hiroshima in 1945. The fatal utterance was mokusatsu. This is composed of two characters, moku symbolizing „silent“, and satsu „kill“, and was probably intended to convey nothing more than „no comment“. However, this was interpreted by foreign media to mean “not worthy of comment, and seen as a profound insult.

I found an unclassified NASA report on the web which describes this incident in great detail:

Mokusatsu, v. take no notice of; treat (anything) with silent contempt; ignore [by keeping silence]; remain in a wise and masterly inactivity. – Kenkyusha’s New Japanese – English Dictionary, p. 1129.

Reporters in Tokyo questioned Japanese Premier Kantaro Suzuki about his government’s reaction to the Potsdam Declaration. Since no formal decision had been reached at the time, Suzuki, falling back on the politician’s old standby answer to reporters, replied that he was withholding comment. He used the Japanese word mokusatsu, derived from the word for “silence.” As can be seen from the dictionary entry quoted at the beginning of this essay, however, the word has other meanings quite different from that intended by Suzuki. Alas, international news agencies saw fit to tell the world that in the eyes of the Japanese government the ultimatum was “not worthy of comment.” U. S. officials, angered by the tone of Suzuki’s statement and obviously seeing it as another typical example of the fanatical Banzai and Kamikaze spirit, decided on stern measures. Within ten days the decision was made to drop the atomic bomb.

What strikes me is that these stories are typically told as examples of a bad translation (“the ill-chosen translation of a common Japanese word”, “an inauspicious translation”, “incorrect translation leads to disaster”). In other words, the blame is laid squarely at the translator’s feet. It is another case of the messenger being shot.

One explanation is that non-linguists often assume that every word in one language has an exact counterpart, an equivalent, in another, that a word or an expression in a source language can only be rendered in one way into a target language (where it will be understood in exactly the same way). Obviously as linguists we know nothing could be further from the truth. Even with simple technical translation, I am often surprised just how many different translation alternatives there are. Particularly as an examiner for the Institute of Linguists I was sometimes amazed at the multitude of translation options candidates came up with (not counting the inacceptable ones).

But who knows, the translator from Japanese (who I believe remains unnamed) may have put in a TN (translator’s note), something along the lines of “this word is ambiguous and can be interpreted to mean 2 or 3 quite different things…”. And it may well have been someone higher up to the political leadership to take that one – offensive – meaning of mokusatsu (which is the first definition in the mentioned dictionary), suppressing the TN that the word might also mean nothing stronger than “to withhold comment”.

On the other hand, it is true that translators generally do decide to go with one possible translation, because taking that decision is their job and pointing out ambiguities is not.

If you ask me, the fault lies with the Japanese prime minister in this case. And with anyone who is wanting to say something important, but fails to say it unambiguously! But then, isn’t that just typical, not just of politicians, but also of so much that is being written by people in the corporate world and by marketing professionals?

I leave you with this refreshing imaginary scenario that is given in the declassified NSA news report:

Even if some high American officials ever knew that the Japanese Premier had used the word mokusatsu, they probably wouldn’t believe that it could be translated in either of two ways. More than likely some high-ranking officer (probably a bird colonel) in the Pentagon asked the top Japanese translator (probably a nisei Pfc) about mokusatsu and then refused to believe the story about two meanings. You can almost picture this colonel pounding his desk and red-facedly bellowing, “Whaddyamean telling me that the word means either ‘I am maintaining silence’ or ‘I’m treating it with contempt’? Dammit, private, I can’t go tell the Joint Chiefs something like that! I gotta give ’em straight facts, not multiplechoice tests! Now you quit beatin’ around the bush and give me one answer that I can tell ’em!”.

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