In this article, we will take a deep dive into a Japanese word. It is made up of two characters. In English the term is Mokusatsu. To make it easier for non-Japanese people, separate out “Moku” and “Satsu” so it is easier for you to pronounce. The corresponding Japanese characters are: 黙 and 殺.
My previous article, Machines, Semantics & E-Discovery: Sontaku (忖度) and Tokusai (トクサイ) received a good amount of feedback. Some of these comments confirmed my assumption that the human aspect of E-Discovery, notably foreign language document review, was neglected. While this may be reasonable when evaluating English-language documents since most involved in reviewing English documents are at minimum speaking the same language. In foreign language documents, there are so many variables that can impact meaning. Even professional translators can get it wrong.
In our exploration of the term Mokusatsu, we hope to shed light on the importance of translation. This is particularly the case when a great deal of attention is focused on AI as it relates to neural machine translation. If you’re interested in this topic, read The Evolution of Machine Translation and the article I published above, which includes some instances of machine translation failure.
There is no question that a substantial amount of advancement has been made in adopting various technological solutions when faced with various forms of data. At the same time there is also a great deal of hype, marketing buzz and public relations hyperbole as it relates to the use of these technologies. My concern is not evaluating the efficaciousness of these tools, but rather observe from the often overlooked but still very important realm of the human element of E-Discovery as it relates to foreign language terminology.
No matter what technical solution or workflow, human input is invaluable. Even if there are situations where unsupervised learning can occur, in the course of any large, mission-critical matter the human element of judgement, experience and skill is fundamental.
A History Lesson from Hiroshima: A Critical View
If you grew up in the Western world, you may have heard that the fate of the Hiroshima bombings by the Americans was the result of a translation error. I do not believe this narrative.
My reasoning is because the official bombing order was sent to General Carl Spaatz from Thomas T. Handy before the mistranslation1. There are few issues here to explain. First there is the historical sequencing of events that even if the translation occurred before the order, we still need to deal with the question of the translation itself. My belief from the record is that the translation, accurate or not, did not cause the bombing. What I do believe is that the so-called mistranslation served to confound the already tense political situation that was occurring during war time.
What is clear is that translation can make a historical impact. The question of whether it actually led to the bombing is a separate issue that can be debated among academic historians. As I stated above and from my research, I do not believe it did. At the same time, I appreciate the importance in the human element in deciphering words and phrases. Translation from one language to a target language is hard. I’d like to quote a part of an article which I believe is a typical narrative.
The story is as follows: in July 1945, the allied countries meeting in Potsdam submitted a harshly -worded declaration of surrender terms. After their terms were translated from English into Japanese, they waited anxiously for the Japanese reply from the then Japanese Prime Minister, Kantaro Suzuki. This ultimatum demanded the unconditional surrender of Japan. The terms included a statement to the effect that any negative answer from Japan would invite “prompt and utter destruction.”
Meanwhile, newspaper reporters pressed the Prime Minister Suzuki in Tokyo to say something about Japan’s decision. No formal decision had been reached and therefore Suzuki, falling back on the politician’s old standby answer to reporters, replied that he was “withholding comment”. The Japanese Prime Minister stated he “refrained from comments at the moment.” Mokusatsu was the key word to express his idea, a word that can be interpreted in several different ways but that is derived from the Japanese term for “silence”. As can be seen from the dictionary entry, the word can have other quite different meanings from those intended by Suzuki but the Japanese to English translation conveyed just one meaning”.
Media agencies and translators interpreted the word “treat with silent contempt” or “take into account” (to ignore), as the categorical rejection by the Prime Minister. The Americans understood that there would never be a diplomatic end to the war and were naturally annoyed by what they considered the arrogant tone used in the Japanese translation of the Prime Minister’s response. International news agencies reported to the world that in the eyes of the Japanese government the ultimatum was “not worthy of comment.”2
Although we Japanese have not been able to locate any instance of Prime Minister Kantaro Suzuki using the word Mokusatsu with regard to the Potsdam Declaration, here is not the place to discuss the historical accuracy.3
What we know is that the word Mokusatsu appeared in a headline of July 28th Asashi Shinbun. As the above quotation describes, the word Mokusatsu can be translated in several ways, but the core meaning of the word is silence. Hence, the word Mokusatsu can be translated as“no comment”, “refrain from any comment”, “take no notice”, “ignore”, “reject”, “not pay attention to”and so on.
According to Keiichiro Kobori’s book “Prime Minister Kantaro Suzuki” (available only in Japanese), New York Times, Washington Post, Associated Press and Reuters news agency used words such as “ignore”, “reject” and “take no notice” when they introduced Prime Minister’s press conference about Potsdam Declaration.Said another way, given that there were numerous primary and secondary definitions of this word, they selected the above. This selection would impart a certain emotional sentiment, especially among the non-Japanese readers of the news headline.
I do not believe that this translation caused the catastrophe in Hiroshima. I do, however, believe that this tells another story: That semantics, meaning, and translation is deeply tied to context. This is even more true with Japanese. As I wrote in my article on Tokusai (トクサイ), we have to be careful with when we translate, especially in high stakes situations like war, litigation and medical.
- U.S. National Archives, Record Group 77, Records of the Office of the Chief of Engineers, Manhattan Engineer District, TS Manhattan Project File ’42 to ’46, Folder 5B “(Directives, Memos, Etc. to and from C/S, S/W, etc.).
- 小堀桂一郎ࠗ宰相鈴木貫太郎࠘文春文庫、1987 (Keiichiro Kobori, “Prime Minister Kantaro Suzuki” 1987)