Words are toxic and dangerous things. We currently have a Presidential contender who threatens his opponent with prison if he wins, and if he doesn’t win the election, then that means the election was rigged against him. That sort of clear and obvious threat against Democracy is not just craven and crass, but unwise — however, his threats are precise and clearly inform us all of his intentions and insanity.
We only need to travel back to the United Nations on October 12, 1960 and watch Russian leader Nikita Khrushchev take off his shoe and bang it on the podium while threatening to “bury us” all!
Except, that isn’t exactly what Khrushchev said — but 56 years later — most people still believe Khrushchev said “bury you” when he really said, “We will outlive you.”
Who made that error in translation, and why didn’t the Soviets immediately set the world straight against the inaccuracy?
Two things were in play.
First, the Americans — and the rest of the world — loved seeing Khrushchev go off the rails and get emotional and embarrass himself and “bury you” is a much more effective shovel to offer him as he digs his political grave.
Second, the Soviets likely preferred the threat to bury their opponents instead of merely outliving them. The error in translation was better to the fact, because the lie deviously made their point in the angst of the angry moment.
When it was revealed years later what Khrushchev really said, there was a curiosity and amazement about how such a mistake was allowed to linger across history — because the idea of Communism “outliving” Democracy was an interesting and intellectual argument over the brutish “Bury You!” translation. Khrushchev was set in a whole new light.
The purposeful Khrushchev missed translation makes you wonder how many other foreign leaders have been misunderstood on purpose, or by error, throughout history? With modern technology and Google translate available to everyone today — is that sort of miscalculation in transliteration still possible?
Can we ever really know what someone means unless they spell it out in undeniable terms that are both universal and appealing — at a fourth-grade comprehension level?
We prefer the excitement of the lie over the coziness of the truth — only because danger enhances us in bad behavior while joy represses us in doing the right thing — and as the world expands, and cultures compress, we may be in for more missed translations of the truth because, sometimes, the real lie of the matter only fits into a narrow scheme to lead us all the wrong way for the next 50 years.