If one thing is for sure it’s that humans are far from perfect. Everybody makes mistakes. Unfortunately for some people, what may have been a small misunderstanding to them, was actually something that caused major problems for many others. Sometimes misunderstandings can have positive effects, other times they can have negative ones. In no particular order, this list focuses on a few simple misunderstandings throughout history that had major consequences.
10. Michelangelo’s Moses Statue
The Moses is a sculpture that was created by the well-known artist Michelangelo Buonarroti. The statue can be found in the church of San Pietro in Vincoli in Rome. Although extremely detailed and impressive beyond compare, as all of Michelangelo’s works were, the statue appears to simply be Moses seated with a serious assertiveness. The crucial part of the statue comes from two subtle details included on Moses’s head. The detail that Michelangelo included was a pair of horns, and it’s these horns that have been the cause of much debate over the statue and how Moses is depicted. The inclusion of horns comes from a description of Moses’ face in the Latin Vulgate translation of a passage in Exodus where Moses returns to the people after his second meeting with God in which he receives the Ten Commandments. The word used to describe the face of Moses was the Hebrew word “???”. Unfortunately this word can be read as either horn or glow, depending on how the word is dotted. It’s possible that the original translation was right, but I like to believe that after an encountering with God over the Ten Commandments, Moses was glowing, not wearing horns. Regrettably this mistranslation didn’t only lead to the inspiration behind one of Michelangelo’s best statues, but also lead to many centuries of “horned Jew” illustrations.
As it will be shown several times throughout this list, mistranslations are the source behind many misunderstandings. This was the case for a Norwegian student staying in Copenhagen. The student’s misunderstanding came during a trip to the emergency room after he was smashed over the head with a glass during a bar fight. At the emergency room the student tried to explain to the medical staff that he suffered from hemophilia, a condition that impairs one’s body to control blood clotting. Now this seems like a reasonable thing to tell a doctor if you are bleeding profusely from your head, but the student was sent home after being told he was fine. You may be scratching your head wondering why this happened, and I’m sure he was too. What happened was that the physician thought the student was saying he was a “homofil” meaning he was gay. Naturally, the physician told him that nothing was wrong and he didn’t need any medical treatment. Due to the small language barrier separating Norway and Denmark, the physician had misunderstood the problem, and due to the same language barrier, the student thought he was being helped for his actual condition and went home. He was found dead two days later.
8. Atomic Bomb
Anybody that’s ever studied history has at some point or another learned about the dropping of the atomic bombs ”Little Boy” and “Fat Man” by the United States on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This was the first and only time in history that nuclear weapons had ever been used in war. The importance of this event cannot be overstated, especially since it might have been avoided if not for a simple misunderstanding. This misunderstanding came from, you guessed it, a poor translation. When asked if Japan would surrender during World War II, the Japanese ruler used the word “mokusatsu” in response. Now what the Japanese word meant was “we withhold comment – pending discussion”, but when the response was sent to Washington the word was mistranslated to mean “We are treating your message with contempt”. This was picked up by the media and spread like a wildfire around the world. Undoubtedly frustrated by what he thought the response meant, and knowing he needed to respond sternly, President Truman decided that the atomic bombs were a perfect weapon to use. Why this message wasn’t more heavily scrutinized for any possible mistranslation seems very strange, but regardless, this simple mistake led to 150,000-250,000 people being either killed, injured, or exposed to radiation.
7. Salem Witch Trials
The Salem witch trials took place from 1692 to 1693 in colonial Massachusetts. The strange and bizarre action of three young girls led to a series of accusations and executions during this time, the like that had never been experienced before or afterwards in America. The events that took place in Salem are so notable that they are still studied today, so it shouldn’t be hard to believe they happened due to a misunderstanding. It all started from the unusual behavior of three girls. Their symptoms comprised of seizures, throwing objects, making strange sounds, etc. Doctors were called to examine the girls and after being unable to find any physical reasoning to explain the behavior, gave up. At the time colonial America had a strong belief in the existence of the devil and his ability to give supernatural powers to his followers to control the actions of others. The community decided at this point that this was the only plausible solution, because what’s more reasonable when unable to explain a problem than to claim supernatural powers are at work. At this point the girls were forced to name the “witches” that were controlling them. Unfortunately for everybody, one of the accused “witches” confessed and everything spiraled out of control. People were being accused of witchcraft left and right and it grew to the point that the only way to be immune from accusation was to play along and accuse somebody else. This went on until the colonial governor brought an end to the proceedings being carried out by the local court. By the end of the trials over 200 people had been accused of worshipping the devil, 19 people had been hanged, and one person had been executed by being crushed with rocks.
6. Nikita Khrushchev
Another well-known historical misunderstanding came at the hands of communist leader Nikita Khrushchev. Khrushchev, the head of the Soviet Union, was attending a reception at the Polish Embassy in Moscow. It was at this party on November 18, 1956, that he addressed the Western ambassadors and said “My vas pokhoronim”. News reporters in America immediately began to release the statement but unfortunately mistranslated what he said to mean “we will bury you”. Given the extreme tensions from the Cold War and nuclear arms race, one can understand that Americans believed Khrushchev was threatening the United States. By this time the level of fear over the Cold War was at an all-time high, so it’s not hard to recognize that this comment must have horrified the West. It is known now that this was a misunderstanding, and if anybody would have bothered to delve deeper into the matter they would have found that Khrushchev was actually using a common Russian idiom. A more appropriate translation would have been “I feel bad about your ignorance, but it’s your funeral not mine”, and although that is still scary, it is not threatening. This misunderstanding turned the dial on the Cold War from bad to worse. Fortunately it was only six years later that the West learned Khrushchev didn’t actually intend on starting a nuclear war. It was John F. Kennedy that went horns first (yes horns not glow) and threatened the Soviets that if they didn’t remove their nuclear missiles from Cuba he would personally press the button on the end of the world.
5. War of the Stray Dog
During times of extreme tension it doesn’t take much to trigger a catastrophe and the War of the Stray Dog was no exception. In arguably the strangest war of the 20th century, a dog caused an international crisis. Since the Second Balkan War had ended in 1913, hate and aggression had accumulated drastically between Greece and Bulgaria to the point that very little could set off either side. Not surprisingly, the thing that finally did was a misunderstanding. When a Greek soldier’s dog crossed the border into Bulgaria in October of 1925, the soldier did what any good dog owner would have done and, despite the countless people that wanted to kill him, ran after the dog into Bulgarian territory. The soldier was shot and instantly the Greeks used this as an excuse to invade Bulgaria. The Greek army continued to occupy small villages and planned to shell the city of Petrich until they League of Nations stopped the attack. A ceasefire was eventually declared over the misunderstanding, but not before some 50 Bulgarian citizens had been killed.
4. Battle of Antietam
The Battle of Antietam (also known as the Battle of Sharpsburg) is undoubtedly one of the most recognized battles in American history. It was fought on September 17, 1862, near Antietam Creek in Sharpsburg, Maryland. What most people don’t know is that this iconic battle only happened due to a misunderstanding by the commander of General Robert E. Lee’s rear guard, D.H. Hill. While leading his Army in the North, Lee dispatched movement orders to a few of his generals. The orders detailed how he would maneuver while dividing his forces slightly. Due to a misunderstanding, the orders were accidentally left behind at a campsite. Not long after the troops moved on a Union soldier found the orders and they were passed up to George McClellan, the Union’s top commander. Knowing the Confederate Army’s plans, the Union army was able to move in and attack Lee in the Battle of Antietam. Not only did this misunderstanding result in over 22,000 casualties in the bloodiest single day in the history of America, but it allowed Abraham Lincoln to issue the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing all slaves in the South.
3. Assassination of Franz Ferdinand
Archduke Franz Ferdinand is an example of how one wrong turn can change the course of history. It was the assassination of this man that set off one of the largest wars in the history of mankind. It was June 28th, 1914, and the Archduke and his wife were on a harmless motorcade in Bosnia. The Black Hand, a secret Serbian terrorist society, attempted to assassinate Franz by throwing a grenade at the motorcade but accidentally missed and hit the wrong car. After the botched assassination attempt the group decided to hide in the city. The story goes that the Archduke decided to visit one of the victims at a local hospital, but the driver being unfamiliar with the roads made a wrong turn. What seemed like help came in the form of a young man sitting by the road. Unfortunately for the Archduke, the young man was actually one of the conspirators involved in the assassination attempt. What happened to be the Archduke’s unluckiest day of his life, was also the luckiest day of this man’s life. Seeing that he had a second chance, the man quickly shot the Archduke and his wife. This misunderstanding of directions on the driver’s part not only led to the death of the Archduke and his wife, but the start of World War 1, which claimed nearly 10 million lives.
2. Wounded Knee Massacre
The Wounded Knee Massacre took place on December 29, 1890, on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. The massacre is commonly used as a representation of the heart-rending treatment inflicted on Native Americans by the United States. What’s even worse than the fact that so many innocent people were killed, is that it could have potentially been avoided if not for a misunderstanding. What happened is that in 1889, Native Americans across the western United States started to perform a harmless “Ghost Dance”. This dance was actually inspired by a holy man from the Paiute tribe named Wovoka. He claimed that by completing the dance the world would be cleansed of evil and the dead would be reunited with the living. As the dance began to spread from tribe to tribe, the original vision began to be distorted like a message in a game of middle school telephone. The new belief was that the dance would also create a world free of whites. One can only imagine the effect this had on soldiers when they learned of this. Although there was no threat linked with the dance, the soldiers misinterpreted its meaning. The soldiers attempt at stopping the dance resulted first in the shooting of Sitting Bull, and in the same month, the massacre of 150 Native Americans.
1. Jimmy Carter
In December of 1977, then President Jimmy Carter planned a trip to Poland to deliver a speech. At this time the Polish nation was struggling under pressure from the Soviet Union. Unfortunately for Carter, what should have been a dull, routine-type speech, turned into a disastrous misunderstanding that wasn’t just politically insulting, but embarrassing as well. The President’s intentions were to tell the nation that he wanted to learn about the Polish people’s desires for the future. What the President meant, and what his translator said, were two things so utterly different that it’s hard to believe a $150 a day experienced translator could have messed it up. The translator told the people that the president “desired the Poles carnally” but it didn’t stop there. Things went from bad to worse to worse-than-worse extremely quickly. Not long after the first humiliating mistake, Carter mentioned how he was glad to be in Poland. Seems like a harmless thing to say, but it was translated as he was happy to grasp Poland’s private parts. Later on Carter spoke of his departure from the United States, which unsurprisingly was translated to mean that he had abandoned the United States forever. The Last glitch came when Carter praised the Polish Constitution of 1791. Somehow this compliment was translated to how the President thought their constitution was to be ridiculed. One can only imagine the reaction of the Polish citizens in attendance. Being told by the most powerful man in the world that he had abandoned his country and desired to fondle their private parts. This incident is arguably the most embarrassing misunderstanding resulting from a Presidential speech.