Since Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, thousands of Ukrainian soldiers have been receiving training in the United Kingdom by British forces. This situation has highlighted the difficulty in finding translators and interpreters to work with the troops.
Given the wartime context, it is not only a matter of knowing the source and target languages perfectly, but also of considering the fact that the people who will be receiving these messages handle weapons and put their lives on the line. To what extent can misexpression and mistranslation be fatal?
Responsibility in the face of high demand
In mid-July 2022, British Defense Minister Ben Wallace highlighted the difficulties they faced in finding enough translators who could work with Ukrainian troops being trained by the British military in the United Kingdom.
In that scenario, one of the primary tasks of the interpreters and translators is to assist with military training that takes place at three bases and involves the handling of weapons, first aid in the battlefield, techniques, patrol tactics and the law of armed conflict.
After the hiring ads for translators went out, one of the candidates – an experienced Ukrainian-English interpreter – warned that this should not only include language skills, but it will require that translators have a training to provide them with instructions on the use of powerful weapons.
Together with court interpreters and legal translators, the simultaneous interpreter is among the 7 most in-demand language professionals, especially in areas such as business, diplomacy and international relations. Source: Slator
“In the interviews there were many people with interpreting experience. The interviewer was telling them that it was not necessary to be a translator and that a B2 level was more than enough. He claimed that they didn’t need professionals, and this seemed crazy to me, since we are talking about guns, not toys. You need people who speak fluent English and understand the responsibility of what can happen if you make mistakes,” The candidate said.
In fact, the lack of experienced translation professionals in certain specific areas such as bilateral relations, diplomacy, war, health or humanitarian crises, among others, can have extremely negative consequences.
When mistakes start wars
Days before the U.S. dropped the atomic bomb in August 1945, allied leaders presented a statement of terms of surrender to Japan, according to a declassified National Security Agency (NSA) document. As a Newsweek article explains, when reporters in Tokyo asked then Japanese Prime Minister Kantaro Suzuki about the government’s reaction, he said he was “withholding comment,” using the word mokusatu, derived from the word “silence.”
This was translated by international news agencies as saying that the proposed surrender terms were “not worthy of comment.” In the United States, this was linked to the kamikaze spirit and, in less than ten days, precipitated the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima.
Igor Korchilov, the conference interpreter who worked with Mikhail Gorbachev between 1987 and 1990, used the word “verifying” in English, instead of “verified,” while former President George Bush and the Soviet leader were conducting negotiations focused on a nuclear arms control treaty.
From the word “verifying” it could be interpreted that the Russians had unexpectedly sided with the United States on a highly sought-out point of the agreement. Gorbachev immediately corrected his interpreter: “No, no, I never said that.” Years later, Korchilov indicated that he was still extremely embarrassed by the mistake.
“At that moment I wished to be swallowed by the earth ” he wrote in his book Translating History. The Summits that Ended the Cold War, as Witnessed by Gorbachev’s Interpreter, published in 1997. After that well-remembered meeting between the leaders of the two countries, Bush told Korchilov: “Relax, the good news is that you didn’t start World War III.”
When then President Jimmy Carter traveled to Poland in 1977, he said that Poland was the “ancestral home of more than 6 million Americans”. However, his interpreter, Steven Seymour, translated it as “the homeland of 10 million Americans.” Source: The Washington Post
Korchilov’s colleague, interpreter Viktor Prokofiev also participated in important historical events and maintains that “each word in English can have a slightly different meaning, and when put together, they are often perceived as strange.” And he adds: “The translator knows which terms should not be used, what color certain terms have and what connotation they can evoke”.
There are plenty of examples of how a small, and seemingly innocent, word can change the course of history. Working with professionals who demonstrate extensive experience in their work is the only way to avoid dangerous misunderstandings. It is translators and interpreters who continuously update their knowledge and study adamantly their the subject matter expertise areas that make the difference when it comes to globally critical scenarios.