Mistranslations and Misinterpretations are unfortunate but with Media assistance, volatile. Introduction.
First, a clarification of a common misunderstanding (especially rife in the American media):
Translators translate written documents, usually with time to revise or correct their work before it is seen by others. Accuracy at all levels, especially those of vocabulary and style, is of prime importance. Film and video/DVD subtitlers, for example, are specialised translators who need adequate time to prepare and technically present their work, which will be seen on the screen by audiences. Furthermore, because a permanent written record of translations will be available for examination and comparison with the original written form in the source language, translation is not only a highly responsible job but needs the expensive backing of a substantial indemnity insurance policy.
Interpreters, on the other hand, offer a spoken service, performing ‘live’ (at various levels) by offering a spoken ‘translation’ from one language to another. They need, apart from a thorough knowledge of two languages at the highest level, a good speaking voice, quick wittedness and strong self-control. (This does not imply that we translators are dull-witted or even dull. The jobs are simply different and suit people with different temperaments and gifts.)
On a daily basis, on TV and radio, the voiceover comments we hear in English when (for example) a non-English-speaking politician or celebrity is being filmed for the daily (or hourly) News are usually (but not necessarily) done by an interpreter, on the spot (and often in the spotlight). Face to face interviews of any sort (including those most commonly seen on News programmes), need instant interpretation, whether in a private meeting or an international conference. For more ‘leisurely’ documentaries, subtitled or voiceover translations of interviews in a foreign language may be the result of either interpretation or translation, depending on the circumstances. (As a slightly cynical rule of thumb, the more often the English-speaking interviewer nods his or her head in the TV interview without comment in the foreign language while the foreigner is answering the media interviewer’s English question (which has been interpreted by someone else before the interviewee answers), the more likely that the segments of the foreign language will have been translated and subtitled or voice-overed by a local qualified translator or interpreter during or after the interview.)
Both of these professions are demanding, but the interpreter obviously has the more unenviable and stressful (but better paid) job, even in a medical or court assignment for a single client. It is indeed a very great responsibility to bear. When the work is at the most intense and public level (for example, in international diplomacy, in politics or in commerce), the consequences of a momentary lapse, even by a very seasoned professional, can be catastrophic, therefore the pressure and remuneration are correspondingly heavier. (In such exalted interactions, the further hazard of an interpreter (or a translator) being used as a scapegoat by unscrupulous or desperate politicians and Heads of State who have made an error or a misjudgement will be dealt with in a later essay in this series.)
For now, two international incidents resulting from unfortunate interpreting or translating lapses will highlight the worst hazards, especially in our anxious world which now has to cope with insatiable media appetites and instant international communications (not to mention the general lack of comprehension of what translation and interpreting really entail).
On 26 October, 2005, the President of Iran gave a speech at a student conference in Iran. He was reported in the English language press as having said that “Israel must be wiped off the map.” In an already tense atmosphere, international shock was deep, peace was threatened and the reverberations can still be felt from time to time when the translation is repeated. But it appears that the alarming translation was incorrect.
The Iranian journalist-author of a (balanced) biography of Ahmadinejad, Naji Kasra, takes this blood-curdling English statement and explains (p. 140) that the President’s intent could not have been genocidal because the Persian words used by Ahmadinejad (quoting from the late Ayatollah Khomeini) were “Een rejimeh eshghalgareh Quds bayad az safeyeh rouzegar mahv shavad.” The writer translates these, literally, as “This Jerusalem-occupying regime must disappear from the page(s) of time.” [Bold type added.] Kasra adds further linguistic commentary on the Persian sentence, stating that ‘shavad’ means “must become” and ‘mahv’, “the crucial word […] can mean ‘disappeared’,’obliterated’, ‘vanished’” and “that it does not uniquely imply violence.” The word (mahv), he explains, could also be used for the moon being shrouded by clouds or a man “disappearing into a thick crowd” and “does not imply action on the part of a third party”. For those reasons, Naji rejects the translation “must be wiped off” (which he says would be ‘bayad mahv kard’) and its ultra-violent associations, while admitting that the pronouncement was indeed extremely hostile.
(From: Naji, Kasra, Ahmadinejad. The Secret History of Iran’s Radical Leader, London & New York, I. B. Taurus, 2008, pp. 139-141)
ADDENDUM: For a more detailed report on the context and complex international reverberations of this mistranslation – and of its unfortunate origin at the “Islamic Republic News Agency” – see http://www.mohammadmossadegh.com/news/rumor-of-the-century.
2. (As a salutary ideological counterbalance)
Melanie Phillips, the prominent and sometimes controversial British correspondent for The Guardian, published a short report on 29 February 2008: ‘The Mother of all Mistranslations’. The subheading was ‘Israel warns of Gaza ‘holocaust’.’ The report began: “Israeli leaders are warning of an imminent conflagration in Gaza after Palestinian militants aimed rockets at the southern city of Ashkelon. The deputy defence minister said the stepped-up rocket fire would trigger what he called a ‘bigger holocaust’ in the Hamas-controlled coastal strip.”
Phillips continued: “This reported remark by deputy defence minister Matan Vilnai caused widespread shock and absolute horror. For an Israeli minister to use the word ‘holocaust’ to describe a limited war of Israeli self-defence, when for Jews of all people the ‘Holocaust’ means one thing: genocide – and this at a time when the calumny of the ‘Jews as Nazis’ is rampant around the world, putting Israel and the Jewish people at risk – was simply beyond belief.”
“It was indeed without any credibility – because Vilnai never said it. It was an appalling mistranslation by Reuters, the source of the BBC story.”
Her explanation was simple: “Reuters had translated the Hebrew word ‘shoah’ as ‘holocaust’. But ‘shoah’ merely means disaster. In Hebrew, the word ‘shoah’ is never used to mean ‘holocaust’ or ‘genocide’ because of the acute historical resonance. The word ‘Hashoah’ alone means ‘the Holocaust’ and ‘retzach am’ means ‘genocide’. The well-known Hebrew construction used by Vilnai used merely means ‘bringing disaster on themselves’.”
Phillips underlined the serious consequences of such a basic translating error: “But this grotesque mistranslation has given Hamas a propaganda gift which they lost no time exploiting. Hamas official Sami Abu Zuhri said of Vilnai’s comments: ‘We are facing new Nazis who want to kill and burn the Palestinian people.’ At a time when the rockets continue to rain down on the southern Negev and Israel is being forced to contemplate stepping up its incursions into Gaza because of the truly genocidal assault upon its citizens by Hamas, such a mistranslation is more than an unfortunate slip. In the present explosive atmosphere, it can lead directly to an enormous escalation of violence by the Palestinians.”