The U.S. National Security Agency has declassified a document that points to what could be the worst translation mistake in history.
Or, at least, a mistake that led to what may have been the most serious consequences in the history of translation.
While we will never know what would have happened if this confusion had not occurred, it is likely that the sad fate of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was the result of a serious error in translation from Japanese to English.
Hiroshima, the story behind a mistranslation
The story goes as follows: in July 1945, the Allied countries met in Potsdam and presented Japan with the terms of a declaration of surrender.
After the terms had been translated from English into Japanese, the Allies delivered the declaration and anxiously awaited the response of the then Prime Minister, Kantaro Suzuki. This ultimatum demanded Japan's immediate surrender. The terms included an emphatic statement; any negative response by Japan would lead to "swift and absolute destruction."
In Tokyo, journalists pressed Prime Minister Suzuki to say something regarding Japan's decision. No formal decision had been reached and Suzuki replied that he was "assessing the situation." The Japanese prime minister stated that he was "refraining from comment at this time."
Mokusatsu was the keyword he used to express his thoughts. It is a word that can be interpreted in several different ways, but is derived from the Japanese term "silence."
As you can see from the dictionary entry, the word can have several meanings, some of them very different from the one Suzuki probably used, but the translation from Japanese to English conveyed a single meaning.
The media agencies and translators chose the definition "to treat with silent contempt" (ignore). Which meant that the Allies assumed a categorical rejection by the Prime Minister. The Americans understood that there would never be a diplomatic end to the war, which naturally annoyed them, as they felt that the Japanese Prime Minister had responded to the Allies with an arrogant tone.
International news agencies informed the world that, in the eyes of the Japanese government, the ultimatum was "not even worthy of comment."
Mokusatsu, a word that could have been perfectly translated as "I have no comment yet" or "let me keep my comments to myself for now," was translated as "this deserves no response."
The consequences of a possible translation error
As a consequence of this response, the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima 10 days later. If this was due to a translation error, we are talking about the biggest mistake in history. A translation error that killed more than 150,000 people. 70,000 people died instantly and another 100,000 more as a result of destruction and radiation.
Whoever translated Mokusatsu and did not add a note clarifying that the word could also mean "wait to make a public official comment" did a horrible disservice to those who read the translation, who did not know Japanese and probably never saw the original text, so never knew of the ambiguity of the word.
A copy of the declassified document can be downloaded from the link to the U.S. NSA. Some of our staff have been fortunate to visit the Peace Memorial Museum in Hiroshima.
At Pangeanic, we have also scanned and extracted the text, so the declassified document is available on our site.