The deadly results of mistranslation

Translation is the silent waiter of linguistic performance: It often gets noticed only when it knocks over the serving cart. Sometimes these are relatively minor errors - a ham-handed rendering of an author's prose, the sort of thing a book reviewer might skewer with an acid pen.

But history is littered with more consequential mistranslations - erroneous, intentional or simply misunderstood. For a job that often involves endless hours poring over books or laptop screens, translation can prove surprisingly hazardous. Then Russian Premier Nikita Khrushchev's infamous statement in 1956 - "We will bury you" - ushered in one of the Cold War's most dangerous phases, one rife with paranoia and conviction that both sides were out to destroy the other.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 02, 2018, with the headline 'The deadly results of mistranslation'. Print Edition | Subscribe