What do the following names have in common; Jimmy Carter, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and Thamsanqa Jantjie? If your guess was biggest, baddest or most humiliating misinterpretation blunders, congratulations.

Jimmy Carter: You might be thinking, “Since when did the 39th President of the US get involved in interpretation?” Well, in a speech carried live on Polish national television on his first extended visit to the country, an American freelance interpreter hired by the State Department misrendered much of what the President said, so much so that he was replaced afterwards to prevent further embarrassment to the statesman. According to the interpreter, Mr Carter said “he wanted to know about the Polish peoples lusts for the future.” As if that wasn’t enough, according to the interpreter, he also said that “he was happy to grasp at Poland’s private parts.” But contrarily, Mr Carter never actually said that, what he did say though was that “he wanted to know about their desires for the future” (economically and politically) and that “he was happy to be in Poland.”

Hiroshima and Nagasaki: So what do these two historic cities have to do with interpretation blunders? Actually, besides having an atomic bomb dropped on it, they just happen to be the epicentre of a catastrophic mis-translation. After the Postdam Declaration issued on July 26, 1945, which was basically an ultimatum giving terms of surrender to Japan failing acceptance of which they would face “prompt and utter destruction.” Under pressure, the Japanese Premier, Kantaro Suzuki, released a statement using the word “Mokusatsu,” which has various meanings. The word was eventually translated as to “treat with silent contempt”. It is debatable whether this was an outright-mistranslation. Most believe that in this context, the actual meaning was a “no comment” as opposed to a rejection of the terms. Either way, we know what happened next.

Thamsanqa Jantjie: And then there was the South African sign language interpreter who single-handedly (literally) changed the game for interpretation or lack thereof. Mr Jantjie acted as a sign-language interpreter at the memorial service of Former South African President Nelson Mandela. The memorial was televised to an international audience and had in attendance, a number of dignitaries and statesman, including former US President Barak Obama. Mr Jantjie was soon after admitted to a psychiatric hospital after claiming he had suffered a schizophrenic episode during the interpretation where he claims to have seen angels. None of his interpretations were accurate during the memorial at which he joined strings of random signs referencing prancing horses, sharing cigarettes, greetings and circles amongst other incoherent gibberish.

The commonalities in the above have to do with more than just the interpretation blunders, but their consequences. Can you, your company, law firm or department survive such a blunder? There are countless examples of litigation claims against pharmaceutical companies, hospitals and others who took shortcuts by hiring unqualified interpreters. The damages caused by interpretation blunders in these circumstances aren’t just monetary. No one wants to be responsible for loss of life due to incorrectly treating a patient’s condition as a result of a  bad interpretation. There are companies who offer interpretation services, most of them do a good job. And it remains the responsibility of customers to do their research to identify a company that will offer the best service.

ITC has been in the language services industry for over 45 years. We work with over 23,000 professional interpreters covering any conference, meeting or event in the world. Whether your requirement is a personal, sentence-by-sentence solution or real-time interpreting at a large venue, our well-versed interpreters are capable of effectively conveying the dialogue quickly and accurately. So the next time you need an interpreter, talk to us.

Matthew Mokoena