I recently read an article by William Coughlin about, in his mind, the deadliest error of our time. Supposedly, (my husband says he is quite skeptical about all this) the Japanese Foreign Minister Togo was quite happy with the Potsdam Declaration issued on July 26, 1945. The Japanese quickly noted that instead of demanding unconditional surrender of the government, it demanded unconditional surrender of the armed forces. It also promised that Japan would not be destroyed as a nation and hinted that the emperor would be left on the throne.
While the Japanese cabinet was considering accepting the Potsdam terms, they had only received the information informally from the radio. They felt that they needed official information about the Potsdam Declaration. So--Premier Suzuki was to say merely that the cabinet was continuing discussion. When he spoke to the press on July 28, 1945, he used the word "mokusatsu". There is not counterpart in English, and it is even ambiguous in Japanese. Suzuki meant that the cabinet had decided to make no comment on the Potsdam Proclamation, with the implication that something significant was impending. But, according to Coughlin, the Japanese were tricked by their own language. Besides meaning "to withhold comment", "mokusatsu" can also mean "to ignore". "Moku" means "silence" and "satsu" means "kill"--thus literally it means "to kill with silence". Unfortunately, the translators did not know what Suzuki had in mind, and they chose the wrong meaning--that the Suzuki cabinet had decided to "ignore" the Potsdam ultimatum. The Japanese cabinet was understandably furious --but it was too late; Tokyo radio flashed it to America. The atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima August 6 by the allies who were led to believe that the Japanese government had refused to accept the Potsdam Proclamation.
What strikes me is the time interval between July 28 and August 6 so perhaps this whole story is balderdash. However, it does show a possible semantic misunderstanding caused by equivocal words; that is, words that can be interpreted in more than one way.
I've heard that a Russian proverb generated major diplomatic turmoil.In English we might tell someone, "OK, it's you're funeral," meaning, "Do it your own way, then; the only one you're hurting is yourself." An equivalent Russian proverb emphasizie that your way will be fatal and is way better. It says in effect, "I'll be there attending your funeral."
Unfortunately, when Khruschev used that proverb the translator translated it literally, and it came out in English as the much more bellicose "We will bury you."
Apparently there was concern after 9/11 that bin Ladin's remarks might be "off" in translation. And recall that in speaking of the war against terrorism, Bush used the word "crusade", which has a special ring in middle-eastern ears.
Here is an article about this, which also talks about Khruschev's "We will bury you."
An article in today's paper concerns cross-cultural miscommunications, though not specifically words. It concerns how diplomacy with North Korea has been tangled by westerner's failure to understand the importance, in east-asian cultures, of the concept of "face" and "saving face". I excerpt from the full article. I'm not sure I agree with the author, but he does provoke some thought.
quote:I was fascinated by firsthand experiences with the cultural concept of "face" as practiced in Asia. We Americans have no similar construct, and therefore we usually don't fare well when we come up against the concept. Face is about losing credibility or appearing diminished in the eyes of others. Simply put, any action that would cause a person--or a country--to be embarrassed or demeaned results in a loss of face. Face can be regained only by positive measures on the part of the loser.
So what happened with North Korea? [When] President Bush tagged North Korea as part of the "Axis of Evil," the country didn't lose face. In fact, because we never have formally recognized North Korea, the Pyongyang government actually gained face with the president acknowledging its existence.
The real damage was done when Bush called North Korean leader Kim Jong Il a pond scum-sucking dog, or some such words, in his interview with Bob Woodward for the book "Bush at War." That was personal.
Kim was required by his culture to respond to that loss of face, or he would lose even more by accepting it. So what's a dictator-for-life to do? Kim had just one card to play. He had only his nuclear reactor at Yongbyon to fire up as he did in earlier disagreements, until the Clinton administration quieted him by paying attention to him, giving him money and oil and, you guessed it, giving him face in the world and in North Korea by doing so. So it should absolutely be no surprise that Kim is playing his only card yet again.
The big surprise was that we had not anticipated this once the president spoke. We did not even try to cut him off at the pass with some ameliorating words and a little public recognition to give him face. The North Koreans actually delayed their response because they expected just such an action.
We sure fooled them by being culturally unaware enough that we forced them to take the initiative.
It seems to me that the movie Arrival is obviously inspired by the mokusatsu story. But like Kalleh I'm skeptical. Why would the American government consider a news report as the official answer to their ultimatum? Why wouldn't they try to get an official answer?
The aliens say something that translated as "use weapon", and this almost starts a war until the translator figures out that the aliens mean something else, that the statement should have been translated differently.