Interpreting is not easy. Interpreters are expected to be able to work across a variety of subject matters, often under enormous pressure. So it should come as no surprise that interpreters, like everyone, often make mistakes. However, some mistakes are bigger than others. Here is an overview of the biggest interpreting mistakes in history.

1. Horny Moses
When translating the Old Testament, St. Jerome translated the Hebrew word for “radiance” as “horned”. Poor Moses was depicted with horns for hundreds of years and an offensive Jewish stereotype was born.

2. Explosive Remarks
In July 1945, shortly after the US demanded the surrender of Japan, Japanese Prime Minister Kantaro Suzuki called a press conference. To one question, Suzuki responded: “No comment. We are still thinking about it.” Unfortunately, the interpreter’s version was “We are ignoring it in contempt”. A few days later, the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima.

3. Jimmy Loves Poland
In 1976, US president Jimmy Carter, while addressing a Polish audience, asked them about their hopes and dreams for the future. His interpreter translated this as Carter ‘desiring the Polish carnally’. Talk about taking diplomacy one step too far.

4. Heating Up the Cold War
At the Polish embassy addressing several Western officials, one interpreter translated Nikita Khrushchev’s “We will outlast you” as “We will bury you”. At the highest point of the Cold War and with the US population terrified of a Soviet atomic bomb, nuance definitely matters.

5. Mahmoud Ahmadinewhat?
When Mahmoud Ahmadinejad gave his speech in 2006, he said that “the regime occupying Jerusalem must vanish from the page of time”, in an attempt to appease tensions in the Middle East. However, the interpreter translated his words as “I wish Israel be wiped off the map.” 

We hope you have not made interpreting mistakes as big as these, but feel free to share any mistakes you have made yourself. After all, to err is human!

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