Are there examples of wrong or inaccurate translations that had a major impact on the historic course of events (e.g. prevent a conflict from escalate)? And are there examples where the interpreter intentionally made a wrong translation in order to make an impact?

I would like to specify the focus of the question as follows

Are there examples where an individual interpreter has intentionally translated something wrongly with considerable consequences on the historic course of events? I would be particularly interested in such examples of simultaneous translation.

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  • @DenisdeBernardy Thanks for the reference to the other question. While that question is closely related, I think my question is not a duplicate: I am not only interested in translated treaties but basically in any kind of conversation, e.g. also discussions with simultaneous translation etc.
    – simplemind
    Commented Oct 5, 2019 at 10:32
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    To me your question reads like you're asking whether an inaccuracy has ever had a major impact on the historic course of events. Methinks the answer is yes, and the question I linked to references examples of such. There's plenty more if you broaden the scope to things other than treaties -- in which case the answer can be trivially answered by googling "mistranslations in history" and as such would be off topic on this site. If you meant something else, I'd suggest that you edit the question to clarify what you're asking. Commented Oct 5, 2019 at 10:55
  • @DenisdeBernardy Thanks, you are probably right. I edited the question. Do you think it's non-duplicate and on-topic now? If not, do you have a sugestion on how to fix that?
    – simplemind
    Commented Oct 5, 2019 at 11:39
  • Reminds me of this: skeptics.stackexchange.com/questions/34954/…
    – stackzebra
    Commented Oct 5, 2019 at 17:38

1 Answer 1


The one that comes immediately to mind is Why did a young George Washington sign a document admitting to assassinating a French military officer?

the French commander offered Washington written articles of capitulation. He read them aloud to Van Braam so there would be no question what the blurred, water-blotched handwriting said. The preamble stated that the French intended "only to avenge" the death of Jumonville. Van Braam could not translate the next word. In the guttering candlelight of Washington's makeshift command post, it looked as if it were Passailir. Witnesses later had trouble remembering whether Van Braam translated it as "death" or "loss" or "killing." What the French later contended they had written had only one possible meaning: assassination. If Washington signed his name to such an admission, he was taking full responsibility, on behalf of Virginia and the English, for the murder of a French diplomat. Washington later said that what came next was what made him willing to sign: un de nos officiers. That was easy, "one of our officers."

Source: Willard Sterne Randall, George Washington: A Life (1997)

I'm quoting @LarsBosteen's excellent answer cited above.

Google also reveals some other examples

  • BBC list of translation errors The Khrushchev quote, the 1830 negotiations both seem to be examples of simultaneous translations that affected history.
  • Mental Floss provides a similar list with some overlaps; I'm not sure whether any of them fit your desire for simultaneous translation.
  • Rosetta Stone lists another half dozen - the example of "intoxicated" is simultaneous translation, but I'm not sure whether $71 million dollars rises to the level of historically significant.

There are others - I just grabbed those from the top of the google list.

  • Something about that quote bothers me. For one thing, its suspiciously apologetic. For another...if what was signed was truly rain-damaged enough to be that difficult to read, there's no way it got better after it was signed, which seems to be the French story about it being quite clear what that word was. A quick look at the original signed document would show that.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Oct 5, 2019 at 12:39

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