Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Hiroshima and Translation

It's now more than half a century since the horror of the first atomic bomb was unleashed on Hiroshima. But it's just 50 years today since the classic book about it, John Hersey's Hiroshima, was published as a long article in The New Yorker. Both events have a connection with translation.

First the bombing. This connection is well known to historians of the Second World War. It concerns the English translation of a single Japanese word in the Japanese government's reply to the ultimatum sent to it from the Allies convened at Potsdam (the Potsdam Proclamation). The ultimatum threatened Japan with "prompt and utter destruction" if it did not surrender unconditionally, and the word in question in the reply was mokusatsu. Unfortunately it's polysemic. It's derived from the word for silence. It can mean to take no notice of; treat with silent contempt; ignore by keeping silent; but also to remain in a wise and masterly inactivity, ie (in the context) withhold comment for the moment.The meaning chosen by the Allied translators and the media was the former one; but quite likely the Japanese prime minister Kantaro Suzuki meant the latter one. Faced with what appeared to be an outright rejection, American President Truman ordered the bombing. It's been described as "the worst translation mistake in history" and it's been argued over ever since. My own opinion is that whichever was the correct translation, Truman would have gone ahead anyway in order to save American lives and impress the other Allies, not least Stalin. He says in his memoirs:
"Let there be no mistake about it. I regarded the bomb as a military weapon and never had any doubt that it should be used."
The second connection is, on the contrary, little known. Today. 31 August 2016,
"70 years will have passed since the publication of a magazine story hailed as one of the greatest pieces of journalism ever written, Headlined simply Hiroshima, the 30,000-word article by John Hersey [in The New Yorker] had a massive impact, revealing the full impact of nuclear weapons to the post-war generation,"
Hersey's approach, which he probably picked up from reading Thornton Wilder's novel The Bridge of San Luis Rey during his journey to Japan, was to relate his story through the eyes of six of the survivors. One of them was the Reverend Kiyoshi Tanimoto, pastor of the Methodist Church in Hiroshima. On the morning of the bombing he
"had been helping a friend move some stuff to a house in the suburbs for safekeeping (since Hiroshima itself was in constant threat of being bombed)... While they were out there they saw a bright flash of light. Knowing that something bad had happened, and being far enough from the city that they had time to react, the two men dove for shelter before the concussion from the blast could reach them.
"When they were able to emerge from hiding, Mr. Tanimoto kicked into rescue mode immediately. After helping some passersby, he surveyed the damage in the city from a hill. Instead of running as far from the disaster as he could… he ran toward the city, where he ran around tirelessly helping those who were injured or stranded."
Inevitably he was affected by radiation sickness, but he survived and became one of the people known as hibakusha in Japanese.

By November 1946, Hiroshima was published in book form. It was translated quickly into many languages and a braille edition was released. In its book format it has never been out of print since. One translation lagged, however: the Japanese one.
"In Japan, Gen Douglas MacArthur - the supreme commander of occupying forces, who effectively governed Japan until 1948 - had strictly prohibited dissemination of any reports on the consequences of the bombings. Copies of the book, and the relevant edition of The New Yorker, were banned until 1949,"
When the Japanese translation did come out, it was by a Native Translator, none other than the Reverend Kiyoshi Tanimoto. He had become fluent in English during his training as a minister in Atlanta, USA. However, by a technique that is fairly common in literary translating, his text was revised by a professional target-language author. He didn't publish any other translations but wrote other books on religious topics and he became well known as an advocate for victims of the bombing, and he appeared in that role on American television. The annual Kiyoshi Tanimoto Peace Prize is named after him. His translation of Hiroshima is surely one of the most poignant translations ever by a Native Translator.

For an explanation of the term Narive Translator, enter essential definitions in the Search box on the right.

Mokusatsu: one word, two lessons. National Security Agency, 2016. or click [here].

Harry S. Truman. Memoirs. Volume One: Year of Decisions. or click [here].

How John Hersey's Hiroshima revealed the horror of the bomb. BBC News, 22 August 2016. or click [here].

John Hersey. Hiroshima. Translated by Rev. Kiyoshi Tanimoto and Kin'ichi Ishikawa. Tokyo: Hosei Daigaku Shuppankyoku, 1949. There are a few copies left in libraries: consult WorldCat. (Revision of a Native Translator by an established writer is done not only to ensure the quality of the target text but also to put a well-known name on the cover as well as an unknown one.)

Kiyoshi Tanimoto. Wikipedia, 2016.

Shmoop Editorial Team. Reverend Kiyoshi Tanimoto. Shmoop, 2016. or click [here].

Kiyoshi Tanimoto on the American TV program This Is Your Life, 1955.
Source: Christian Greco,


  1. Thanks for this. And the relevance to translation.I went back to read Hiroshima. Shikata ga nai .. may be. But does anything justify this?

  2. Mokusatsu (黙殺) or no mokusatsu, the bombing was not the result of translation mistake. That is a myth. The truth is that Truman wanted to test the new awesome weapon, both kinds to show Stalin who is the boss now. That's why Hiroshima was followed by Nagasaki. The only reason for Nagasaki was that the second bomb was a different type of A-bomb, and American military wanted to know which one works better. On August 8 when the second bomb was dropped, there was no way that Japan could have continued fighting.

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. Yes, it's more or less what I said but thanks for the additional information.

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