Like a Bridge Over Troubled Waters

By Ewandro Magalhães

The Hiroshima bridge

While the Cold War churned in one hemisphere, World War II had left its indelible mark on the other. In the summer of 1945, the world held its breath as the Allied leaders awaited Japan’s response to the Potsdam Declaration, a stern ultimatum demanding unconditional surrender. The Allies made it abundantly clear that a negative answer would invite “prompt and utter destruction.” Yet, amidst the tension and anticipation, a fateful misuse of language would forever alter the course of history.

In Tokyo, reporters clamor for a glimpse into the secretive corridors of power as Japanese Premier Kantaro Suzuki faces the media frenzy. With the fate of nations hanging in the balance, Suzuki, employing the politician’s age-old tactic, offers a cryptic response: mokusatsu.

Derived from the word for “silence,” mokusatsu encompasses a spectrum of connotations, ranging from contemplative inaction to outright rejection. Premier Suzuki used the word to convey his intention of “withholding comment,” or deferring judgment — a diplomatic maneuver aimed at buying time for deliberation. A different and far more damning interpretation of mokusatsu was formed in the Western journalists’ minds, though. The Premier’s word choice for the press implied a categorical rejection or dismissal of the Postdam declaration as “unworthy of a response.”

As the wires crackled with news of Japan’s supposed disdain, alarm bells rang in Washington, DC. Incensed by what they perceived as Japanese obstinance, US officials saw Suzuki’s statement as reaffirming the fanatical resolve that had characterized Japan’s wartime stance. Mokusatsu became a symbol of defiance, a brazen invitation to escalate the conflict.

In hindsight, the tragedy of Hiroshima looms large over the misinterpretation of mokusatsu. Granted, the decision to drop the atomic bomb was not solely based on Suzuki’s statement. Still, the Premier’s ambiguous word choice undoubtedly helped shape the narrative of Japanese intransigence.

Like a tragicomedy of errors, the ambivalence of mokusatsu underscored the perils of linguistic miscommunication in the high-stakes arena of international diplomacy and the ultimate responsibility of translators.


The shaky Moscow bridge

Fast forward a decade to Moscow, 1956. The Cold War is at its iciest, and every word uttered by Soviet leaders is scrutinized like tea leaves by a fortune teller. At a diplomatic reception at the Polish embassy, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev leans in. With a sly grin and his gravelly voice, the superpower leader drops another bomb: “Мы вас похороним!”

The room falls silent, and the Western bloc ambassadors exchange nervous glances. What did he just say? All eyes turn to Viktor Sukhodrev, the man caught in the crossfire of linguistic mayhem. Standing two feet behind Khrushchev, the interpreter faces the unenviable task of deciphering the Soviet leader’s words for the English-speaking world. And decipher he did, in so doing igniting a firestorm of panic and paranoia in the West as he rendered Khrushchev’s word thus: “We will bury you!” Ambassadors and guests look at one another in disbelief. Did Khrushchev just threaten global annihilation, or was something lost in translation?

In hindsight, and with the East-West tension at an all-time high, it’s easy to see how a simple phrase could snowball into a diplomatic avalanche. Perhaps Khrushchev’s words were meant to be a playful jab, a bit of Cold War banter to spice up the evening. Or maybe they were a veiled threat, a not-so-subtle reminder of the Soviet Union’s ideological superiority. Whatever the case, Sukhodrev found himself at the epicenter of a linguistic tempest, his interpretation reverberating like a sonic boom across the geopolitical landscape. Many years and several Soviet leaders later, the aging figure still adamantly stood by his word choice that day as the only possible rendering of the original Russian utterance.


A bridge to Mexico?

We tend to believe that interpreters are not born but made. Journey back long enough, and you will find that many such linguists were forged into the craft rather reluctantly due to captivity, forced marriage, or pure survival instinct.

Interpreters so introduced to the métier will always harbor some degree of inner conflict and invite over them the inescapable judgment of history as to where their loyalty lies.

Such was the fate of Malinalli Tenépatl. Born into the Mexica empire in the 16th century, the young lady found herself at the heart of history’s tumultuous tides as Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés dropped anchor and trudged into Mexico.

As the Spaniards advanced into Mayan territory, a local chief gave Cortés 19 women as a gift for winning the battle of Potochán. The girl, locally known as Malintzin, was among them. As the expedition marched further into Aztec land, the Spanish captive who had served as their interpreter thus far could no longer help, as he only spoke Mayan. Malintzin, whose father had become conversant in Nahuatl from years in commerce and trade with the Aztecs, was naturally skilled in that language and proved a suitable replacement. Recognizing her invaluable linguistic abilities, Cortés took her under his wings. While historians debate the exact nature of their relationship, it is widely acknowledged that she played a significant role as Cortés’ interpreter, advisor, and concubine during the conquest of Mexico.

La Malinche, as she came to be known in history, played a role that was far from straightforward. While she facilitated communication between Cortés and the local leaders, her motives and loyalties have sparked intense debate, both then and now. Some portray her as a traitor, complicit in the downfall of her own people. In contrast, others view her as a survivor navigating the treacherous currents of colonialism and opening the door to what would later become the sovereign land of Mexico.

The story of Doña Marina, as she is also referred to, is far more nuanced, though. As an indigenous woman thrust into the tumult of conquest, she occupied a liminal space between cultures, serving as a mediator to her captors while in captivity. Her ability to navigate the linguistic and cultural divide between Cortés and indigenous peoples undoubtedly shaped the course of history. Yet, her agency and autonomy remain obscured by the shadows of colonialism.


Bridge specialists

The poor translation job is mentioned almost without exception in these stories’ recounting. One short magazine article calls the mokusatsu incident The World’s Most Tragic Translation — an “ill-chosen translation of a common Japanese word, disastrous oversight in this most important of all messages, and that inauspicious translation.” No one seems to question the translator’s personal culpability.

But is it fair to lay the blame solely at the feet of interpreters like Sukhodrev and the anonymous translator in Tokyo? In the high-stakes arena of international diplomacy, where tensions simmer and mistrust runs deep, interpreters often find themselves caught in the crossfire of linguistic warfare. They are tasked with distilling the nuances of language and culture into digestible soundbites while navigating the treacherous waters of political intrigue and diplomatic posturing.

Amidst the rubble of mistranslations and misinterpretations, there is a glimmer of hope. Far from mere conduits of words, interpreters and translators can also serve as catalysts for understanding and reconciliation. In the aftermath of Hiroshima, the Khrushchev debacle, and the saga of La Malinche, their voices and talent were also used to champion the cause of diplomacy and dialogue, recognizing the folly of war and the imperative of cooperation.

So, rather than point fingers at linguists for the woes of the world, it would behoove us to remember that communication is, by definition, a very imprecise exercise. In a world fraught with peril and possibility, history — and international diplomacy, for that matter — is often the result of building, burning, and then rebuilding bridges.

None of that can be done without translators and interpreters on a planet as diverse as ours.

Ewandro Magalhães is a conference interpreter, former chief interpreter in the United Nations system, interpreter trainer, and language technology advocate. He is a TEDx speaker and the author of three books, including The Language Game.

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