Monday, 14 November 2016

Lost in Translation? Lives may be at stake

In the grand days of the British Empire – or Empuh – we Engish speakers understood that if Johnny Foreigner didn’t understand what we were telling him, we just said it again, louder. After all, it was in his interests to cotton on, pronto. He needed to grasp our instructions to him before he faced the inevitable consequences of not carrying them out.

Things changed little as the accent of the English addressed to him became increasingly American. In fact, if anything, it was more important than ever that all those blighters, aliens as we liked to call them, learned God’s language because the stakes became even higher when they got into trouble for not knowing it.

The attitude prevails to this day, which is why foreign languages attract less and less attention in the curriculum of British schools. Or American ones, come to that.

Still. At the risk of sounding downright unpatriotic, this business of not knowing the lingo the lesser races speak has, occasionally, been a bit inconvenient to us rulers of the universe (sorry, don’t want you to think that we’re all of us rulers of the universe – I should have said the small number of us who take on the terrible burden of ruling the universe for the sake of all mankind). Take, for example, the run-up to that nasty spot of unpleasantness between the United States and the Empire of Japan. You know, in the Pacific, starting in December 1941. A business both sides could have well done without.

It seems things might have been just a bit helped by a better understanding of Japanese in the months before war broke out. Or, putting it another way, sometimes having a bit of information can be worse than having none at all. And if they’d grasped the language, the Yanks might have been considerably better off. Especially the ones who got killed or injured in said unpleasantness.

The Secretary of State of the time was Cordell Hull. And he had the benefit of code-breaking services that deserved their name of ‘Magic’. For instance, all messages from the Japanese Foreign Secretary Shigenori Tōgō to his negotiating in Washington were being cracked.

But then they had to be translated.

His translators led Hull to believe Tōgō had written to his team:

Well, the relations between Japan and the United States have reached the edge and our people are losing confidence in the possibility of ever adjusting them.

He should have read:

Strenuous efforts are being made day and night to adjust Japanese-American relations which are on the verge of rupture.

John Toland, who describes these exchanges in his invaluable book, The Rising Sun, tells us that many Japanese commentators think the translation errors of the time were deliberate. Toland doesn’t agree: “It is far more likely that the inaccuracies came from ignorance of the stylised Japanese used by diplomats. It is also possible that the hastily-trained translators wanted to make their copy more readable and interesting.”

The errors could be serious. For instance:

Conditions both within and without our empire are so tense that no longer is procrastination possible, yet in our sincerity to maintain pacific relationships between the Empire of Japan and the United States of America, we have decided, as a result of these deliberations, to gamble once more on the continuance of the parlays.

would have been better translated as:

The situation both within and outside the country is extremely pressing and we cannot afford any procrastination. Out of the sincere intention to maintain peaceful relations with the United States, the Imperial government continues the negotiations after thorough deliberations.

Worse still, the sentiment rendered as:

This time we are showing the limit of our friendship, this time we are making our last possible bargain, and I hope we can thus settle all our troubles with United States peaceably.

was really:

Now that we make the utmost concession in a spirit of complete friendliness for the sake of peaceful solution, we hope earnestly that the United States will, on entering the final stage of the negotiations, reconsider the matter and approach this crisis in a proper sprit with a view to preserving Japanese-American relations.

So what ensued was a dialogue of the deaf. Or perhaps deafness wasn’t the issue: we might say that, on the American side at least, what we had a team that was partially sighted – and that was perhaps worse than having no sight at all.

Pearl Harbor: a disaster that might have been avoided
with better knowledge of modern languages?
The negotiations, perhaps inevitably, failed. On 7 December, Japanese forces launched a devastating attack on Pearl Harbor. That started a war that would leave at least 2.5m Japanese dead and 106,000 Americans (in the Pacific Theatre).

And we still think that mastering foreign languages isn’t that important a goal?

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