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Marketing Blunders – Mistranslations that changed the World

A Missed Letter (i) Gives Us Martians

Back in 1877, Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli reported a rather shocking discovery: There were “canali,” or canals, on Mars. Since canals are artificial by definition, this caused a shitstorm of speculation about the possibility of a long-vanished race of Martians who must have made the structures to irrigate their crops. People assumed that Mars must have once been populated by a civilised race of brilliant engineers.

However, canali” doesn’t mean “canals,” it actually means “channels” or “trenches,’ and Schiaparelli was just noting some totally natural terrain differences.

Venusians, hypothetical inhabitants of our closest neighbour on the sun-side, never witnessed the same popularity. By the time the 20th century got going, Martians on Mars were a done deal, and it was all because of one itty-bitty “i.”

The “Mokusatsu” Incident

mokusatsu … , ‘l1-suru, 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,


In July of 1945 allied leaders meeting in Potsdam submitted a stiffly-worded declaration of surrender terms and waited anxiously for the Japanese response. The terms had included a statement to the effect that any negative answer would invite “prompt and utter destruction.” Trumann, Churchill, Stalin and Chiang Kai-Shek stated that they hoped that Japan would agree to surrender unconditionally and prevent devastation of the Japanese homeland and that they patiently awaited Japan’s answer. Reporters in Tokyo questioned Japanese Premier Kantaro Suzuki about his government’s reaction to the Potsdam Declaration. Since no formal decision had 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 “mohusatsu” derivedd from the world “silence.” and that they patiently awaited Japan’s answer.

As can be seen from the dictionary entry quoted at the beginning of this article, 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 governement the ultimatum was “not worthy of comment”. U.S. officals, 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 on Hiroshima.


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