How a Mistranslation Almost Led to WWIII

The effect of a mistranslation isn’t always as simple as an ad campaign gone wrong or a scientist being driven mad by Martians (look up Percival Lowell).

In today’s case, the result could’ve been a nuclear war.

The year is 1956, and the Cold War is at its zenith. At the Polish embassy in Moscow, USSR Chairman Nikita Khrushchev proclaimed to a room full of international diplomats: “My vas pokhoronim”.

The interpreter at the time, Viktor Sukhodrev, was used to Khrushchev’s complicated rhetoric, but in this moment, the words he spoke were “We will bury you”.

Considering that the Soviets had just created the first ICBMs (intercontinental ballistic missile), this phrase didn’t resonate well with westerners who imagined themselves buried under a radioactive cloud.

The cultural context of this phrase relates to ideology rather than warfare, though, and in Khrushchev’s case, he meant “We will outlive you” or “Our people will outlast yours.”

The implied threat set Soviet-American relations back a decade and fostered in a new era of anticommunist paranoia in the United States. 

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