Archive for June 2008

Global warming is not our most urgent priority, by James Delingpole

24 June 2008

At the risk of being sued for breach of copyright by my Beloved (the venerable but ultra-cool British Spectator magazine) and by the less venerable but highly talented and permanently impoverished writer James Delingpole (please send him a donation to allow him to maintain the lifestyle that he deserves), I would like to share with you this important (IMHO) article which transcends our solipsistic blog world.
(From: Bjørn Lomborg, the controversial Danish economist, tells James Delingpole that it is better to spend our limited funds on saving lives than on saving the planet.

Gosh, I do hope Bjørn Lomborg doesn’t think I was trying to pick him up. I’ve only just learned from his Wikipedia entry that he’s ‘openly gay’ which, with hindsight, probably made my dogged insistence that we conduct our interview in his cramped hotel bedroom look like a cheap come-on. Not to mention the way I sat there throughout, mesmerised and sometimes lost for words under the gaze of the handsome, trim 43-year-old blond’s intensely sincere Danish blue eyes which never leave yours for one second.

But it’s OK, Bjørn. You were safe all along, I promise. The reason for my awe is quite simply that I believe you are one of the heroes of our age. You’ve been called the antichrist, been vilified ad hominem in numerous scientific journals, even had custard pies thrown in your face (at Borders bookshop, Oxford, by an eco-activist), but still you’ve stuck to your guns and continued bravely to reiterate what for a time seemed almost unsayable.

Lomborg’s basic argument — as laid out in his bestsellers, The Skeptical Environmentalist and Cool It! — is that the world isn’t in nearly as bad a mess as the eco-doomsayers claim it is. And before we do anything too drastic to try to make things better, we ought first to ascertain what its most pressing problems are, rather than throw good money after hopeless causes.

Lomborg’s latest venture is a body he has founded called the Copenhagen Consensus. Funded mainly by the Danish government, this research panel comprises 50 leading economists, including five Nobel Laureates, and has spent two years applying cost benefit analysis methods to a list of global challenges — disease, pollution, conflict, terrorism, climate change, water and so on.

Its conclusions are hardly likely to win Lomborg new fans in the eco movement, for global warming comes so far down the list of urgent priorities that it doesn’t make the top ten. Far better to spend our limited pool of development aid money, say the economists, on schemes like micronutrient supplements (vitamin A and zinc) for malnourished children. For an annual outlay of only $60 million this would result in yearly benefits (through improved health, fewer deaths, increased earnings) worth more than $1 billion.

Also high on the list are unglamorous things like expanded immunisation coverage for children; deworming programmes in Third World schools; and community-based nutrition promotion. Number two on the recommended list is the — highly unlikely given resistance from the US and the EU — implementation of the Doha development agenda. Ending the trade tariffs, in other words, which are immeasurably to the developing world’s disadvantage.

‘It’s true that in the battle between exciting problems and boring problems we are defenders of the boring problems,’ agrees Lomborg, when I suggest that polar bears on melting ice caps tug the heartstrings far more effectively than flyblown African urchins. ‘Our uphill task is to try to show that problems involving the greatest pictures and the cutest animals are not necessarily the most pressing issues.’

This is the sort of dull pragmatism that so often gets Lomborg into trouble. People will read him saying that the threat to polar bears has been somewhat exaggerated, given that their global population has increased fivefold since the 1960s, and they’ll think: ‘Heartless, evil Bush shill, probably in the pay of Big Oil.’ Whereas all Lomborg is actually saying in his remorselessly logical, Danish statistics professor’s way, is: ‘Let’s take emotion and hysteria and fluffy white fur out of the argument and try to seek the objective truth.’

Ah, but what do economists know anyway? Aren’t decisions regarding the environment, nutrition and so on better left to experts in those fields? ‘But if you ask a malaria expert where the money is best spent, you shouldn’t be too surprised if the answer is malaria,’ says Lomborg. ‘What economists can do which natural scientists cannot is, in effect, to put the prices on the menu. They are not saying, “You should pick this meal or that meal.” What they are saying is, “If you pick the lobster, you’ll have less to spend on everything else.”’

The principal question Lomborg encounters is, ‘Why should we have to pick and choose? Why shouldn’t we be able to do it all?’ He even heard this line from a US congressman, who said, ‘I can understand why a small country like Denmark has to focus on priorities, but America is so big.’ ‘I had to remind him that even though the US is indeed a lot bigger, it still seemed to me that in the last 50 years it hadn’t yet fixed all the problems in the world.’

What non-economists tend to have difficulty understanding, says Lomborg, is the concept of marginal benefit. ‘We tend to think in terms of absolute magnitude, so people will say, “Global warming is overall a bigger problem than micronutrition so we should deal with that first.” But what economists say is, “No. If you can spend a billion dollars and save 600,000 kids from dying and save about two billion people from being malnourished, that’s a lot better than spending the same amount to postpone global warming by about two minutes at the end of the century.”’

In the early days of his campaigning, when he first transformed himself from left-leaning Greenpeace-supporting tree-hugger to environmental ‘skeptic’, Lomborg used to get a lot more stick than he does now. His unlikely ally, he says, has been the ongoing biofuels disaster, whereby a scheme introduced to help save the environment has helped bring about riots, rising food prices and the destruction of rainforest. ‘People have suddenly started to realise: “Ew! Not every drastic measure we take in panic is smart!”’ he says. (The American-accented ‘Ew’ bit, by the way, is the only moment where he sounds remotely camp.)

Unlike proper climate change sceptics (who are the equivalent, George Monbiot has famously claimed, of Holocaust deniers), Lomborg says his views on global warming are broadly in sympathy with those of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Where he thinks the green movement has got things badly wrong is in attempting to shut down any form of critical opposition.

‘You cannot have a conversation about the biggest policy argument of the day, and then say that one side isn’t allowed to debate,’ says Lomborg. He thinks the greens have also done their cause a great disservice by talking up the climate change threat. ‘You can overplay your cards and screech so loudly that you end up losing the argument.’

The battle for common sense, though, is far from over. His worry is that the next Kyoto update — the Copenhagen summit in 2009 — will prove yet another wasted opportunity where politicians set themselves ever higher pie-in-the-sky targets on carbon emissions. ‘The danger is not that we’re not going to meet these targets, because I take that as granted — of course we’re not going to meet them, just as we didn’t after Kyoto in 1997. What’s far worse, is that yet again, it will stop us focusing on all the incredible things we actually could do with that money. So we end up wasting another ten or 20 years.’

Mistranslation. 4

23 June 2008

Mistranslation, Errors in Interpreting, and the Interpreter as Scapegoat or Professional Patsy

The true nature and problems of language translation and interpretation are not widely understood by the public or even by many clients of those who practise these solitary occupations. One of the aims of this series of short articles is to help clarify this unsatisfactory situation (in particular, to illustrate the important difference between the tasks of translators and interpreters).

Although the term ‘mistranslation’ is self-explanatory, the words interpret and interpretation are in common general use in reference to the explanation of meaning, ideas and theories. For this reason, the term ‘misinterpretation’ is ambiguous and unhelpful for our present concerns. From now on, therefore, the term ‘Interpreting Errors’ will be used to describe instances of unfortunate oral conversions of one language to another (or the unamended transcripts of such conversions).

As indicated in the earlier brief blog, ‘Mistranslation 3’, reports of errors by interpreters (or, less often, translators) occur in many circumstances, but are particularly noticed in national and international settings, where they attract media headlines and strong but usually ephemeral public attention. When the interpreter is responsible for the error, this is a fair procedure – although the media and the public might do well to pause and consider the intense pressure this (necessarily) obscure professional is always under. When zealous or unscrupulous bureaucrats and PR people (at many levels, especially in the international arena) are involved, a closer look at the context of such ‘errors’ is needed before blaming the interpreter because there is increasing evidence that such institutional professonals frequently earn their money by taking advantage of the interpreter’s anonymous existence and professionally necessary inconspicuousness as a facilitator of communication between two parties. In many cases, their motive is simply to rescue their official protégé from the consequences of an unfortunate slip of the tongue or careless adlib, or to produce spin to divert responsibility from insensitive and inappropriate statements. Of even more concern, especially in international politics, is the increasing use of the clumsy tactic of unjustly blaming interpreters for something they could not possibly have said in order to replace one firmly stated (but unattractive) public position with a substantially revised one. In all of these cases, the interpreter is used as an expedient means of saving face for others.

It is worth repeating that the public, which is largely unaware of the problems and principles involved with translating and interpreting, should be aware (as the interpreter always is) that one of the interpreter’s professional duties is to remain anonymous and to act as an impersonal conduit of his client’s words. He/She is well (and sometimes painfully) aware that this professional commitment entails the risk of being blamed for anything without a right of reply. Taking advantage of this condition which interpreters accept as part of their duties,their employers sometimes abuse the relationship to further their own careers. In the high stakes of politics and diplomacy, especially in international politics and in military matters, an interpreter may be used in order to stall or buy time. Increasingly in this world of instant worldwide communication and media attention, today’s PR personnel and spin doctors have come to rely on interpreters as convenient scapegoats and sacrificial lambs for ‘interpreting errors’ which are not their fault.

Unlike errors of interpreting, examples of crucial mistranslations are not difficult to find, especially since they are almost always based on documents. Take for instance the following incident, revealed in detail by a Duke University Assistant Professor of Linguistics, Hae-Young Kim (Guardian Weekly, 15 May, 2003). In one stage of the cat-and-mouse struggle between USA and North Korea over the subject of nuclear weapons, Kim reveals that confusion was caused by the mistranslation of a Korean auxiliary verb. According to Kim, a statement by the North Korean Government was first quoted by South Korean news agency Yonhap that it had “come to have nuclear and other strong weapons” but the US TV channel CNN later quoted a South Korean official as suggesting a different [and more pugnacious] interpretation: that North Korea was “entitled to have nuclear weapons”. Kim underlines his point by adding that the situation was “the result of mistranslations from Korean into English, and stems from ideological or political motives rather than linguistic differences”. (,5500,955964,00.html)

Other grave mistranslations have been suggested as causes of the outbreak of war between USA and Japan in 1941 and the unnecessary loss of life at the 3-month battle of Monte Cassino in 1944.

Alleged interpreter errors occur most frequently in order to cover up the indiscretions or errors of those Heads of State, Presidents, and other high national representatives who are incautious (or brazen) in their public statements or whose off-the-cuff remarks are captured by the voracious international paparazzi (for example, ex-President Vladimir Putin, President Lula da Silva and ex-Prime Minister Mesut Yilmaz).

In a report on the former Prime Minister of Turkey, Mesut Yilmaz, we are told:

Why does Yilmaz have to make such statements? Can’t he keep quiet for a change? Only recently he said he was being misquoted by the newspapers and thus would not speak so openly with journalists.

In Antalya he landed himself in more trouble a few days ago when he called German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, “a former friend and a current enemy”. Later Yilmaz aides tried to limit the damage by saying the prime minister was misunderstood but the TDN reporters from our Antalya office who were on the scene reported that Yilmaz had, in fact, made such a statement and that there was no misunderstanding. ( – 3 April 199eight)

During his two terms as President of Russia, Vladimir Putin built up a ‘tough man’ image, which prospered among his humiliated compatriots, anxious to recapture past glories and reputation. Part of his cultivated media image was his fearless macho character. An example was captured fortuitously and duly reported in the New York Times on 20 October 2006 by Steven Lee Myers.

President Vladimir V. Putin has a penchant for making pithy, acerbic, sometimes coarse comments. On Wednesday, a microphone inadvertently left on during a brief appearance with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert of Israel captured his views on the sex scandal involving Israel’s president.

According to journalists and officials in the room and published accounts by Agence France-Presse late Wednesday and Kommersant and The Jerusalem Post on Thursday, Mr. Putin was heard saying, “Say hello to your president,” to Mr. Olmert, referring to President Moshe Katsav, who could face criminal charges that he raped and assaulted two former employees. Mr. Putin added, “He really surprised us.”

The microphone was quickly turned off as reporters were ushered from the room, but the news organizations reported that Mr. Putin went on.

“We did not know he could deal with 10 women,” he said, according to those in the room and the Post and Agence France-Presse accounts, apparently referring to the complaints by several women that Mr. Katsav harassed them or worse.

Kommersant’s version – citing the remarks in Russian – was cruder. “He turned out to be quite a powerful man,” the paper’s reporter in the official Kremlin pool, Andrei Kolesnikov, quoted Mr. Putin as saying. “He raped 10 women. I never expected it from him. He surprised all of us. We all envy him.”

To CBS News we owe the following example of then President Putin’s undiplomatic language, which was first attributed to “poor translation” [note ‘translation’ = interpreting] and then ignored by the European media, as being too embarrassing for a Head of State.

“During a post-European Union summit news conference, Putin also said Chechen rebels want to kill all non-Muslims and establish an Islamic state in Russia.
Putin became agitated Monday after a reporter from the French newspaper Le Monde questioned his troops’ use of heavy weapons against civilians in the war in Chechnya. Chechnya is predominantly Muslim.

“If you want to become an Islamic radical and have yourself circumcised, I invite you to come to Moscow,” Putin said.
“I would recommend that he who does the surgery does it so you’ll have nothing growing back, afterward,” he added. Circumcision is a tenet of Islam for all males.
Because of poor translation, Putin’s remarks were not immediately understood by either the 450 journalists present at the news conference Monday or by senior EU officials. The Russian president brought his own interpreters, and even the native Russian speakers were unable to keep pace with Putin’s rapid-fire delivery.”
(‘Cutting Comments From Putin. Russian President Makes Bizarre Circumcision Remark To Reporter’, BRUSSELS, Belgium, November 12, 2002,

The institutional “Blame the translator/interpreter” subterfuge is at its most transparent and cynical where the two versions offered have nothing in common. Here are two egregious examples.

The first example of gratuitous blame attributed to an interpreter is taken from an Associated Press bulletin issued on 17 October 2007. (

It describes a UN meeting called to consider the Syrian reaction to an air attack by Israeli warplanes on a site in northeastern Syria near the border with Turkey on 6 September 2007. The subject of the dispute is a single crucial word: nuclear.

A UN document released by the press office provided an account of a meeting Tuesday of the First Committee, Disarmament and International Security, in New York, and paraphrased an unnamed Syrian representative as saying that a nuclear facility was hit.

The U.N. document, which summarized minutes of the meeting but was not an official record, paraphrased the Syrian representative as saying “Israel was the fourth largest exporter of weapons of mass destruction and a violator of other nations’ airspace, and it had taken action against nuclear facilities, including the 6 July attack in Syria.” [Bold type added]


After several hours, U.N. associate spokesman Farhan Haq said the exact words of the English interpreter were: “An entity that is the fourth largest exporter of weapons of mass destruction in the world, an entity that violates other countries’ airspace, and that takes action against nuclear facilities, including the attack on 6 July this year on a nuclear facility in my country – that entity has no right to lie, which it has done consistently.”

But after six hours, the U.N. said it was still studying whether that was the correct translation from the original Arabic words spoken by the Syrian representative.

U.N. officials in New York could not immediately be reached for comment on whether its press release had accurately paraphrased the Syrian official.

The farcical nature of this rearguard diplomatic manoeuvre was revealed six months later following lingering controversies and the release of more accurate information. David Albright and Paul Brannan’s article ‘Syria Update III: New information about Al Kibar reactor site’ announced that “Today, the United States is releasing new information which provides dramatic confirmation that the Syrian site attacked by Israel on September 6, 2007 was a nuclear reactor. The information, including images taken inside the reactor building before it was attacked, also indicates that North Korea helped to build the reactor, which resembles closely the one at the Yongbyon nuclear center in North Korea. ISIS first identified the site in a series of reports beginning October 24, 2007 and continuing on the 25th and 26th., which showed the razing of the site following Israel’s attack. Commercial satellite imagery of the site is available in these reports and subsequent ones. […]”

(Institute for Science and International Security ISISREPORT 24 April, 2008,

The second example:

On 28 November 2001, Voice of America reported on UN-sponsored talks in Bonn about the critical Afghan situation

The Northern Alliance has also opposed a multi-national force proposed by the U.N. to guarantee security in Afghanistan and protect such things as aid shipments. But Mr. Qanooni says such a force would be acceptable to the alliance if it is part of a comprehensive peace package.

On 30 November, in an article titled ‘Hopes for peace rise with new translator’, Toby Helm of the UK Telegraph reported a very curious official “correction” of an Afghan interpreter’s alleged error:

Mr Younis Qanooni, the head of the Northern Alliance delegation to talks in Bonn, restated his case as follows: “Our official stand,” he told reporters “is that once a transitional mechanism is established, and the need for international force is inevitable, we are not opposed to the arrival of an international force.”

These two statements are so different that, as reporter Helm says, “an about-turn … opened up common ground with other Afghan groups” and “the prospect of a peace deal between rival Afghan factions rose sharply yesterday after the Northern Alliance reversed its position on two key issues, blaming an interpreter for “distorting” its earlier statements.

It is abundantly clear to any reader of these crude manipulations that the interpreter had absolutely nothing to do with what was a strategic change of direction by the Northern Alliance. (But one cannot help wondering about the interpreter’s subsequent career.) (

Inside evidence that this expedient scapegoating of interpreters has become an unashamedly accepted tactic is cheerfully offered by a former White House Press Secretary for ex-President Bill Clinton, Dee Dee Myers. As an invited guest at the 1994 Conference of the American Translators Association, she cheerfully offered the following response to a question based on a quoted example of General Wesley Clark’s adroit but ephemeral deflection of a serious Kosovo war allegation by citing translation error (“a question of the use of indefinite articles and some other things in the translation itself”).

“Now, do people blame interpreters or do they spin…? Well, whatever’s going to get them out of a jam the quickest! Sometimes both, and in the case of your Wes Clark example, I think that’s the answer. On the one hand, you’ve created a situation where you’ve been pointing fingers at the Serbs, and you’re going to have to spin your way out of that, trying to figure out a way to continue to paint them as the bad guys. And you’ve obviously been caught in quite an unfortunate mistake, so you’re going to blame the interpreters—and interpreters, as all of you I’m sure know, are kind of defenseless. They really can’t step forward and say “I didn’t make a mistake” or “I repeated what the President said, he changed his mind.” When it comes to protecting yourselves, you are at the end of the food chain, and I’m sure many of you have been in circumstances where things like that have happened. Ultimately, making the official—whether it’s the President, the Secretary of State, the Secretary of the Treasury—look good and protecting them from blame is the overriding mission. So you’re powerless against those forces that are working to protect the principle—even if he or she is at fault.”

(With acknowledgements to the translation journal Accurapid for its report on the fruitful ATA 40th Annual Conference, November 4-6, 1999, St. Louis Missouri, ‘Translators and the Media: A Public Forum to Examine the Image of Translation and Translators in the Popular Media’. See:

(to be continued)

Julia Owen and bee stings in Bromley

14 June 2008

Apitherapy, the use of bees and their products in healing, is an ancient therapy. In the last hundred years the term has also been used for the more specific bee venom therapy, which has become a branch of alternative therapy and is currently offered by small bodies of practitioners (grouped into national associations) as a means of curing or alleviating the effects of arthritis, rheumatism, asthma and, more recently, Multiple Sclerosis. One of the major textbooks on this form of apitherapy, Bee Venom Therapy, was published by Dr Bodog F. Beck in 1935. The basis of most current treatment is by the injection of frozen bee venom. One of the most publicised practitioners and researcher appears to be Dr Michael (or Mihály) Simics of Canada, who has also written extensively on the subject (principally informative booklets on bee venom and Multiple Sclerosis and on bee venom collection. Another standard textbook is Dr Joseph Broadman’s Bee Venom Therapy.

On 16 February 1975, an eccentric self-promoting apitherapist was catapaulted into public attention by the quality British Sunday newspaper, The Observer. The title and photograph on the first page of Ena Kendall’s Sunday Magazine feature article, ‘Can bee stings cure blindness?’ were eye-catching. Nevertheless, the later account (and photograph) of 67-year-old Mrs Julia Owen’s celebrity patient, Jack Warner, the veteran British TV actor whose crippling arthritis was apparently cured by Owen’s bees’ stings, must have inspired an equal amount of mail responses from desperate people in UK and beyond. Readers were informed that the miracle-performing therapist was the Austrian widow of two British husbands and currently lived and practised her therapy in a leafy suburb of the prosperous Kentish town of Bromley (30 miles from London). She claimed to have successfully treated arthritis and asthma patients with her secret method for decades. Now, in her twilight years she had turned her attention to the dramatic field of Retinitis Pigmentosa (RP), a degenerative eye disease with no traditional medical cure (then or now). She had begun to claim spectacular results unequalled by traditional or alternative medicine. This and later newspaper reports echoed these claims. (Encouragingly, thirty years on, several lines of traditional medical research are finally indicating the possibility of some degree of cure for the small percentage of RP sufferers in the world.)

For the next four years, Mrs Owen’s self-promotional media activities, and the enthusiastic reports from her RP patients were to seek and enjoy meteoric media attention in UK and abroad. Many desperate Retinitis Pigmentosa sufferers (from UK, Australia, some continental European countries and one or two other countries) with enough money to spend on the lengthy residential personal treatment offered by Julia Owen deluged her with letters. A small selection of them endured periods of several months of virtually solitary residential bee venom treatment in Bromley, eager to be stung and to endure the inevitable painful swellings in order to be relieved of the sentence of their degenerative condition.

It was in the early months of 1978 that I came into personal contact with Mrs Owen during a visit to Europe. This short contribution of my hitherto unpublished observations of this final period of Julia Owen’s largely undocumented career (apart from her three autobiographical books) is taken from contemporary research notes on many face to face and telephone conversations, as well as some follow-up correspondence with Mrs Owen and unofficial conversations with a few of her closely chaperoned patients. The thirty year gap in publication of these notes should exonerate me from any accusation of a wish to “rush into print” with what is a strange but tantalisingly incomplete story.
Bibliography of Mrs Julia Owen’s self-published books:
Treat yourself for your Rheumatic Disorder or Arthritic Disease and Avoid the Doctor
Clamouring at the Citadel
Doctors without Shame

In 1978 Julia Owen’s patients, who probably averaged a dozen at any one time, were lodged in small groups in two or three rented houses in suburban Bromley. Since RP strikes hardest and fastest during the upheaval of puberty and middle age (the menopause for both sexes), Mrs Owen’s patients tended to be in those two age groups, with a predominance of the younger set.
Before describing the venom treatment, it is necessary to offer some preliminary idiosyncratic methodological details for consideration when weighing up the possibilities of alleged cures which were not subjected to medical verification. Firstly, not only were the RP patients not encouraged to meet fellow patients in Mrs Owen’s other rented houses in Bromley, but they were subjected to quite deliberate indoctrination by her on her daily visits to apply the stings directly to their bodies. They were also under constant pressure to obey her strict instructions, not to gossip unless it was about a cure, and to admit both to themselves and to their anxious families (and, if possible, journalists) that they were beginning to see much better than before.
In Mrs Owen’s explanation of her work, there was no talk of farming, freezing and injecting the bee venom. For her the process was much more direct and intuitive – she would probably have added ‘scientific’. She kept swarms of specially bred and selected bees and claimed to feed them on secret (and expensive) herbal mixtures (“some from Switzerland”), blended to suit each patient’s needs. These needs included the flushing out of prescription drugs which had, as she maintained, made their eyesight worse, because of the ignorance of doctors. The main announced purpose was to produce a salutary cleansing effect on the glands rather than to treat the eyes directly.

Before her daily morning or afternoon house visits, Owen selected the requisite number of bees, rendered them semi-conscious and then, on arriving at the treatment houses, took them out of special boxes and applied them, one by one, in quantities ranging from 1 to 12, directly to the skin (usually the face, head, hands, neck and shoulders) of each patient. The patients were under strict orders to leave the stings in for one or two hours before removing them, to get the maximum effect of the medicated venom. With that instruction, and perhaps some words of advice, Mrs Owen would leave the house, carrying the little boxes of dead bees off with her. After the two hours were up and the stings had been removed by the patients, they were left to look after their swellings and themselves for the next 24 hours, although they also received phone calls at any time of day from Mrs Owen.

On the phone, as well as in person, she lectured them on their good fortune in receiving her miraculous bee treatment and insisted that they should be feeling an easing of their visual condition. In addition, they were scolded for perceived misdemeanours, forbidden to gossip and harangued about evil ignorant doctors and their conspiracy to discredit her treatment or to steal Owen’s secrets. Patients were also strongly urged – or told – to publicise the success of the treatment, especially to the media. The four RP patients I spoke to in 1978 (without Mrs Owen’s permission, of course) agreed that on her visits and in the frequent phone calls to their residences, she repeatedly attempted to make them agree with her assessment that they were seeing better and that their eyes were “clearer”. One young lady accused her of “bullying me into saying that I can see fantastically well when I haven’t noticed any change.”

However, some patients, who may have felt a subjective improvement, complied (out of gratitude or fear), and further newspaper articles duly appeared. Much later some of these stories were retracted. In fact, in the time I was in Europe, I was not aware of any clear case where the RP condition was cured or reversed. There was, however, as would be expected, some evidence that patients in this very special atmosphere did perceive a temporary subjective improvement, which subsequently dissipated. I was told that one grateful patient was driven up to the House of Commons in Mrs Owen’s chauffered car with the purpose of lobbying his local publicise her claims in the House of Commons. Not only was the M.P. not available to see them but the patient abandoned Mrs Owen’s treatment shortly after. Such psychological pressures and expectations, on top of the physical pain and temporary swellings, were intense, especially to patients who were far from their families and, in a few cases, in a foreign land.

Mrs Owen was always willing to talk at great length (and with bouts of almost megalomanic incoherence) to anyone willing to listen. By listening to her over a period of 3 months in early 1978, as well as from letters and phone calls answering my questions, I was able to form a reasonably solid opinion. I was even allowed to read a draft copy of one of her books. The latter contained the same sort of mixture as her conversation: strong vehement claims, intemperate shrill tones and language when denouncing people for stupidity or the medical profession for their ignorance of bee venom and the harmful effects of all their drugs, as well as tales of patients and others who had let her down. The two books by Mrs Owen (one of them possibly ghost written) that I have since seen were self-published. They deal ramblingly with her biography and long struggle over 50 years. As for the new draft MS it was equally rambling and shrill and similarly reticent about specific biographical facts. Her main topics were again her bee venom method, diatribes against the medical profession, a catalogue of her impressive claims of success in treating arthritis and, more recently, at the end of this long and unrecognised career, eyesight terminally impaired by RP, which she obviously saw (or grasped at) in the mid 1970s as her possible crowning glory and chance for world recognition.

In the second half of 1978, which had begun so promisingly for Mrs Owen, not only did the success stories dry up but murmurings of discontent from patients and families began to be heard. Julia Owen, who had always been prone to emotional outbursts, became more and more uninhibited with her shrill accusations and complaints against many people who, she maintained, were being unfair and nasty to her. Inevitably, she was more or less publicly discredited in a BBC TV documentary by Roger Cook (Nationwide) on 3 January 1979. Her own ranting interview was rather pathetic but also typical of other scenes that investigative documentaries are able to produce to educate or appease the public. The bubble had finally burst. As far as I am aware, the British media paid her no further attention and, if she continued for a while with her treatment, it was probably more discreetly and almost certainly with a return to more traditional apitherapy bee venom cures of asthma and arthritis, where the “flushing out” by the bee venom may be of measurable and lasting benefit.

Mistranslations and Misinterpretations 2

11 June 2008

Commercial, Medical, Legal and Scientific Consequences of Mistranslation

My earlier blog on mistranslations and misinterpretations introduced the topic of the political misunderstandings and damage which may be caused by mistranslations, or alleged mistranslations, and media involvement. More evidence will be presented on these important issues in later articles. Other serious consequences may result from mistranslations in fields like commerce and advertising, law, medicine, science and technology. In these cases, the damage caused by the errors may at times lead to litigation.

Commerce and Advertising

A commonly told but false mistranslation story asserts that the car manufacturer Chevrolet was embarrassed by the poor sales in Mexico of its model named Nova (No va = ‘It doesn’t go’, in Spanish). The vital website investigates and arbitrates on this and many other plausible and far-fetched urban legends. Nevertheless, mistranslations of product names or ‘How to Use’ instructions into other languages can cause serious commercial problems and expense, as Microsoft discovered in 1996. A furore arose in Mexico over a number of offensive definitions which had somehow survived the translating and editing processes and appeared in Microsoft’s Spanish language Thesaurus, equating, for example, indígena [native person, or (Mexican) Indian] with native, savage, and cannibal; Westerner with white, civilised; and lesbian with perverted. The outcry was so strong from the media representing Mexico’s 100 million inhabitants that the software giant was obliged to insert profuse apologies into Mexican newspapers and magazines, offering a hastily prepared update (minus the offending terms). The full page Spanish advertisement in the magazine Proceso (7 July1996) mentions terms like “serious errors”, “incorrect connotations which are offensive” and “we apologise for these errors”.

Although I cannot vouch for the following two examples, chosen as the most feasible of a somewhat mixed bunch posted on a translation website (, se non sono veri, sono ben trovati. The first I hand over to Chinese (Mandarin?) translators for checking. The second one, also in need of verification by someone who has seen the original, at least appears linguistically feasible.

“In Taiwan, the translation of the Pepsi slogan “Come alive with the Pepsi Generation” came out as “Pepsi will bring your ancestors back from the dead.” Also, in Chinese, the Kentucky Fried Chicken slogan “finger-lickin’ good” came out as “eat your fingers off”.
When Parker Pen marketed a ball-point pen in Mexico, its ads were supposed to say “It won’t leak in your pocket and embarrass you.” However, the company mistakenly thought the Spanish word “embarazar” means “to embarrass”. Instead the ads said that, “it won’t leak in your pocket and make you pregnant”.”

Legal aspects

On 13 November 2007, during the long-running media pursuit of the case of the missing English girl in Portugal, reporter Fiona Govan filed a report on ‘Madeleine McCann: Possible translation errors’ in the UK Telegraph. (

“Inconsistencies in the statements given by the McCanns and the group of friends who were dining with them at the time of Madeleine’s disappearance may have been caused by errors in translation, it emerged today.
Portuguese detectives investigating the case of the missing four-year-old have admitted that they are reassessing the original witness statements to look for inaccuracies in their translation.”

Evidence of the possible consequences of gross misinterpretation by unqualified court interpreters provided in an Internet forum report of an article in The Scotsman (30 October 2007).
“SCORES of convicted foreign criminals could walk free because of the appalling quality of official translators in Scottish courts, a leading linguist has warned.
Alena Linhartova, who has interpreted in Scotland for 20 years, said people were effectively being “pulled off the street” to translate in a growing number of court cases.
This has called into question the reliability of evidence and raised serious doubts about whether foreign nationals, particularly from eastern Europe, can expect a fair trial in this country.”

Misinterpretation in medical situations

An article promoting the need for more funds to employ professional interpreters in US hospitals offers an example of the potential high cost of mistranslations in medical lawsuits. The following case is alleged to have been brought by a patient. (The result of the case is not given.)

“A $71 million lawsuit against a Florida hospital began when medical staff misinterpreted a patient’s symptoms. When a patient explained that he felt nauseous (‘intoxicado’, which has several meanings), they assumed he was under the influence of drugs or alcohol. The patient was eventually diagnosed with a brain aneurysm and became quadriplegic.” (

Science and Technology

Almost unbelievable is the following excerpt from an account by CNN television of a 1999 Space exploration disaster caused by what appears to be a failure to translate basic English technical specifications into metrical terms. (

“WASHINGTON (AP) — Failure to convert English measures to metric values caused the loss of the Mars Climate Orbiter, a spacecraft that smashed into the planet instead of reaching a safe orbit, a NASA investigation concluded Wednesday. […]
An investigation board concluded that NASA engineers failed to convert English measures of rocket thrusts to newton, a metric system measuring rocket force. One English pound of force equals 4.45 newtons. A small difference between the two values caused the spacecraft to approach Mars at too low an altitude and the craft is thought to have smashed into the planet’s atmosphere and was destroyed.”

Armand A. Gagnon, of Champollion Translations ( offers the following historical example as ‘One of the Greatest Mistranslations of all Time’:

“Back in 1877, Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli had observed the planet Mars through his modest 19th Century telescope and in his astronomy book, mentioned the “channels” (dried waterbeds) on the surface of the red planet. In his native Italian, “channels” is canali. When the wealthy Bostonian amateur astronomer Percival Lowell read a translation of Schiaparelli’s book and canali was translated as “canals” in English (implying a network on Mars created by intelligent beings), a life-on-Mars mania and madness then ensued well into the 20th Century. …”

Yet another anecdotal lesson is offered in an informative essay to prospective clients on the website of another translation agency. The context of the article is a warning about the significant (and inconvenient) errors which may result from a translator’s inadequate knowledge of the many differences (often subtle) between British and American English. The lesson would apply to translation from and into English. (Source:

“To publish any kind of household appliance manual and constantly refer to the “earth” instead of the “ground” in talking about electrical connections could lead to a product liability suit. I am aware of a lawsuit that occurred when a transformer blew up in the United States that had been manufactured in Europe, because the instruction manual had been translated in China into what the Chinese fondly believe to be English (which English, we do not know) and the instructions for attaching the surge arrestors were so poorly translated that the surge arrestors were wrongly attached and the whole device blew up, at a cost of five million dollars to the owners of the transformer.”

(to be continued)

See also: Mistranslations. Introduction

This later blog article on fluency in foreign languages may also be of interest to some readers.

Please dress up the Em dash

8 June 2008

The unspaced naked Em dash—or em rule—is quite ugly! (Just take a look at it sprawling over the end of that sentence!) The good news is that since about 1960, simple but elegant alternatives for this archaic typographical rule (most common in USA) have come into existence, promoting much-needed Lebensraum for the Em dash’s squashed and downtrodden neighbouring words. The special needs and influence of the Internet have speeded up wider adoption of the two simple improvements visible on our screens and often in print — the use of spaces with Em dashes, and in UK and elsewhere, spaces with En dashes – or ‘en rules’.

As far as I can gather after a short bout of research and selective reading, the following appears to be a very potted history of the punctuational problem. In the English-speaking world, prior to about 1960, the Em dash (em rule)—with NO spaces between it and the juxtaposed words—was the alternative typographical sign in books, newspapers and magazines. It was used, sparingly, to give special emphasis to interruptions and explanatory or emotional additions to a sentence or clause when a comma (or commas), parentheses (…) or a colon were not considered emphatic or dramatic enough. In general literature and newspapers, the special effect of the Em dash was used sparingly; in more serious tomes and especially in academic literature, it was, and remains, comparatively rare.

Then, in the 1960s, the innovative British publishing company, Penguin, which had begun to publish low-priced paperbacks in 1935, began to use an alternative form for drawing special attention to such sentence additions: an En dash (or two) with a space on either side – like this. Other British paperback publishers like Pan, Panther and Fontana followed suit some time afterwards and eventually many British publishers of hardback novels and non-fiction adopted this effective – and aesthetic – habit. Oxford University Press, for example is a notable user of the naked Em dash, whereas HarperCollins and the venerable (180-year-old) Spectator magazine clothe their Em dashes with spaces. British newspapers use either Em dashes or En dashes.

Meanwhile, in USA, the unaesthetic—unbuffered—Em dash has continued to rule the printers’ roost, at least until recently. Some American newspapers and magazines, like the New York Times, in print and online, now use the Em dash with spaces — giving a more pleasant result, as I hope many readers (and publishers) will agree. The majority of US publishing houses (as well as TIME Magazine, Vanity Fair, Prospect and Style manuals) continue to restrict the use of the En dash (unspaced) to series, spans and sets (5–7, 1900–1960, etc.), as is the practice in UK and other countries. (There is in fact a US mnemonic or mantra: “dash joins; Emdash divides.”)

What seems to have gone more or less unnoticed by many English language commentators is that in the publishing world, the use of En and Em dashes (with or without spaces) as alternative commas, colons and parentheses, has increased since computers and Internet word processors, with their available extra symbols and keyboard shortcuts, ousted the centenarian typewriter – with its limited number of fixed keys. Concern for the visual appearance of what we read on the computer screen must also be considered a factor in the rise in popularity of these highly visible contemporary punctuation marks. These factors (and the rapid decline in print and electronic media usage of colons, parentheses, and commas) could explain why many print and online magazines and newpapers have now adopted the spaced varieties of dashes. In book publishing, American fiction and non-fiction clings conservatively to the ancient unspaced Em dash. (Australian book publishers are divided between Em and En but the major newpapers favour En or Em dashes with spaces. Goodon’em!)

Another aspect of these typographical trends is that in many print and screen publications, the frequency of use of En and Em dashes (spaced or unspaced) has increased far beyond what was once considered ‘appropriate’ by stylistic arbiters. A superficial study of the use of spaced or unspaced dashes in the print and online media suggests that this visual aid may appeal to some writers and sub-editors as an extra way of emphasising, or even ‘spinning’ elements of a story. Have any MA or PhD theses been written on this?

Be that as it may, given these examples of a practical preference for adding spaces on either side of dashes – there is even a keystroke shortcut for ‘En dash plus spaces’ in Microsoft WORD – is it not time for more compilers of English Style manuals and other advisory and pedagogical materials to recommend the use of such spaces with either Em dashes or, in UK, En or Em dashes? That would accelerate the demise of the “Em gash”.


1. J. E. Nesfield, Manual of English Grammar and Composition, London, Macmillan, 1916, p. 124. [1st edn, 1898.17th printing. A bestseller!]

“The Dash has five main uses:—

(a) To mark a break or abrupt turn in a sentence:—
Here lies the great—false marble where?
Nothing but sordid dust lies here.
(b) To mark words in opposition or in explanation:—
They plucked the seated hills with all their loads—
rocks, waters, woods—and by the shaggy tops …
[Paradise Lost]
c) To insert a parenthesis. Here two dashes are required:
At the age of ten—such is the power of genius—he could read Greek with facility.
d) to resume a scattered subject
e) to indicate a hesitating or faltering speech …

2. In Modern Australian Usage (Melbourne, Oxford University Press, 1993), Nicholas Hudson makes some interesting remarks on the development of dashes (pp. 103 and 342).

3. Some current online and print examples:

TIME Magazine [Em dash, without spaces]

“… and no cell phone coverage—for “security reasons”—the locals claim.”
“… child laborers—some appearing no older than 6—lug piles of rocks … .”
“Clutching an envelope containing $287—the equivalent of her monthly pension—Liang tearfully said that …

The New York Times [Em dash with spaces. The Em dash looks smaller on the screen]
“Some terrorism experts find the argument silly — and dangerous.”
“the average profits of the nation’s corporations — from behemoths like Goodyear to small neighborhood retailers — have declined”

The Wall Street Journal [The online version uses the two hyphens combination which dates back to typewriter days]

“… the demand for diesel — the lifeblood fuel of the world economy — continues to rise …”
“(Try a Wimpy burger — if only for the name.)”

The Times [En dash with spaces]

“… rumours abound of kidnap squads – a Russian gang has been mentioned – being recruited…”

The Economist [Em dash without spaces. An impression of more sparing use of dashes.]

“… and farmers in the delta—the country’s main rice-growing region—are already planting their next crop.”
“… a broader feeling that Labour—traditionally a party of the urban working class—has ignored the countryside.”

The Age, Melbourne, Australia [Em dash, with spaces]

“The most likely explanation — and obviously what the Government thinks — is that the leak came from a disaffected public service source.” (political commentator)

(The Herald Sun, Melbourne) [Em dash, without spaces]

“I can’t say I’m happy—my husband’s dead—but at least these murderers are getting what they deserve.”

The Australian newspaper, owned, like The Times, The Sunday Times and many US papers, including The Wall Street Journal, by Rupert Murdoch gives an excellent example: Em dashes plus spaces.

4. For an idea of the technical complexities facing professional typesetters, desktop publishers and editors, see the forum for ‘typophiles’, who deal with arcane matters like kerning and leading, etc., which have become slightly less arcane since desktop publishing appeared). Worth skimming is this thread: . Note the eminently practical (but perhaps daring) contribution by Stephen Coles:

“An em dash — is simply a long dash. If it’s too long for you, use an en dash or horizontally scale it (yes, it’s okay to scale a rectangle).”

[I think those are typographers’ ‘hair spaces’. They are a welcome improvement.]

“Contrary to the P22 primer, the europeans generally use spaces (sometimes thin spaces) on either side of dashes, and I prefer it. No space creates visual tension for me. Many fonts need the room to breathe. As Nick said, all of this depends on the font, as some dashes are longer than others and some have sidebearings with space, some do not.

The only hard and fast rule is that you must remain consistent in your use throughout a piece or brand.”

The following long thread shows how technical things can get and will confuse or exhaust non-experts like myself: Nevertheless, Nick Shinn emerges as my hero here (but I am not so keen on Patty’s conservatism).

“Patty, I recommend “space – en dash – space” for practical reasons, because as I said, emdash treatment varies so widely with typeface. For instance, this Futura em dash is really nasty, with no sidebearings and a long way from the vertical centre of the x-height. This is the kind of situation where “following the rules” will cause a typographer to do stuff which looks clumsy.” (Nick adds some convincing graphic examples.)

Diccionario de mexicanismos. Sample 1

5 June 2008

Muestra/ Sample: Breve Diccionario Ejemplificado de Mexicanismos

(Brian Steel, 2000)

1. Algunos ejemplos seleccionados de la letra ‘A’

(con traducciones al castellano de España y al inglés)


alberca nf =piscina // Los domingos se quedan todo el día en la casa; si acaso van a la alberca o al cine… (G.Careaga, 1984:90) “… nosotros tenemos el trampolín, pero ustedes tienen la alberca.”… (E.R.Huchim, 233) swimming pool

albur nm // Equívoco malicioso, palabra de doble sentido; se trata de un recurso ingenioso de la picardía popular mexicana, cargado de connotaciones sexualmente agresoras … (DMex, I:60) … el humor mexicano está ligado con el albur y éste está ligado (en todo el sentido de la palabra) al sexo. (El Chamuco, 21-4-96:31) double entendre

alburear vi fam // Lanzar albures o palabras de doble sentido en la conversación. (DMex, I:60) to use double entendres in conversation

alburero, -a nmf =persona aficionada a los dobles sentidos // Claro, eran alborotadores, albureros, impunes … (E.Poniatowska, 1983b:49) person fond of double entendres; punster


altos nmpl =piso de arriba; el alto // En una construcción de dos niveles, el piso de arriba … (L.F.Lara, 1986, 65) upper storey

amá nf fam =mamá Véase también apá Mum

amagar vt esp México =amenazar // Tres o cuatro delincuentes armados de sendos cuchillos amagaron a los pasajeros del convoy [del Metro] … (Excélsior, 23-4-96:25) … amagaron al chofer … para que les entregara el dinero. (El Occidental, Guadalajara, 18-5-97:19) to threaten

amarrar vt =comprometer apoyo económico // [El Presidente] Vino a Guadalajara a amarrar dinero para las obras hidráulicas … (Siglo 21, Guadalajara, 23-5-97:12) to commit; to promise (support)

amarre nm fam // amarre Acción de frenar un vehículo con violencia. (E.Márquez, 25)
(to do) a wheelspin/’wheelie’; sudden braking

amasia nf amasio nm =querida/querido // El hombre o la mujar que está en amasiato… El diccionario registra sólo el femenino. (M.Velasco Valdés, 1967:20) [Pero véanse los ejemplos que siguen.] … al verse abandonado por su amasia … (Excélsior, 3-1-96:25) Por su parte, su amasio Julio Mata Soto se presentó voluntariamente en la séptima agencia del Ministerio Público … (El Heraldo de México, 1-10-93:19A) Amasio es el nombre con el que los lerdos designan al amante … (R.Hernández, 1990:14)
lover; mistress; partner; de facto (husband/wife)

amasiato nm =amancebamiento; ligue // El pequeño bar lo era, más bien, para amasiatos y canas al aire y novios sonrojados. (C.Fuentes, 1969:280) … ese idilio … que iba para matrimonio, se volvió amasiato … (G.Dehesa, 123)
de facto relationship; affair; casual sexual encounter; pickup


ambulantaje nm =venta callejera; vendedores callejeros // Si el municipio no frena el ambulantaje, los comerciantes amenazan con suspender los pagos por el servicio de limpieza … (El Universal, 26-8-96:15) Sobrevive … del ambulantaje [el] 40 por ciento de maestros de educación básica. (El Heraldo de México, 25-7-95:5) street selling; street traders

ameritar vt esp México =merecer // Nos prometiste el dinero pasara lo que pasara…, los peligros lo ameritaban, eso nos dijiste. (C.Fuentes, 1978:161) to deserve


1. la amolaste / te amolaste loc fam =la cagaste you screwed up (vulg)

2. ya ni la amuela(s) loc fam =es el colmo // -Oigan …, ya ni la amuelan … (F.Victoria Zepeda, 179) Y otro que ya ni la amuela es el Popocatépetl. Como si fuera hora de fumarolas, caramba. (M.Dornbierer, 1995:142) (that’s) taking things too far

andadera nf =andador de nene baby’s walking frame

andador nm =paseo peatonal; sendero para andar // Transite única y exclusivamente por los andadores. (Boleto, Parque Nacional Lic. Eduardo Ruiz, Uruapan, Michoacán) Al llegar a casa de su jefe, en andador Valle …, éste estaba dormido … (Excélsior, 11-10-96:30) … tres canchas de tenis y dos de padle tenis, un andador para practicar joging … (Proceso, 8-4-96:19) walking path; pedestrian mall/precinct

¡Ándale!/¡Ándele! interj fam =¡venga!; ¡adelante! // Ándale, Pepe, tú puedes conseguirlo … (R.Loret de Mola, 119) –Ándele, ya no hable y coma … (A.Salazar, 53) Come on!; Go ahead!; Fine!


ansia: (no) comer ansias loc fam =(no) impacientarse // Venga ahora y no coma ansias. (El Universal, 25-8-96:13 B anuncio) -No comas ansias, cuate. (F.Victoria Zepeda, 57) (not) to get worked up (about something)

antier adv fam =anteayer // Antier a la hora antes mencionada, el ingeniero… manejaba su automóvil … (El Universal, 26-12-70:6) the day before yesterday

antojitos nmpl =piscolabis; tentempié // Comida típica popular (ú. m. pl.) (DMex, I:104) Los antojitos mexicanos no tienen igual en las cocinas del resto del mundo. (A.Gironella De’Angeli, I:47) Una vendedora de antojitos pasó, envuelta en trapos y canastas … (C.Fuentes, 1969:209) Me ha preparado unos antojitos para cenar. (Cuna de Lobos, Televisa) snacks

añales fam =(hace) muchísimo tiempo // (Hace) Añales que no me pasaba eso. (Hace) Añales que lo conozco. (for) ages


apapachar vt (NAH) mimar; abrazar // … te paseo, te apapacho, y luego me sales conque … (A.Salazar, 91) … los Reyes de las anfetaminas a quienes aquí apapachaban los jueces. (Época, 22-6-98:1) to hug; to cuddle; to spoil

apapachos nmpl (NAH) =caricias // Si lo que desea son apapachos y chiqueos femeninos, no tiene usted idea de la cantidad de damas de todas las edades … que están dispuestas a hacerle compañía a un solterón … (M.A.Almazán, 1983:33) cuddles; caresses

apartador nm fam // … un espacio para estacionar vale más que muchas cosas de la vida … A partir de las 5 de la mañana, empiezan a apartar los espacios de estacionamientos de todas las calles … (A.Salazar, 115) person who reserves parking space in street for a tip

apenado, -a adj =avergonzado; desconcertado // … pero ella sale a recibir la leche y los ve, apenada porque está en bata, despeinada y quizá desnuda debajo de la bata. (G.Sáinz, 1967:21) … estaba muy apenado por haber olvidado el … aniversario … (E.R.Huchim, 1997, 92) embarrassed

apenar(se) vt/vr esp México =disgustar; dar vergüenza/pena; avergonzarse // A … me apena decirle que jamás en mi vida he tomado una copa.” (Quehacer Político, 15-3-97:40) Enrojecía cada segundo y la adulación llenábalo de bochorno …; se apenaba por los elogios … (L.Spota, 1974:164) to (be) upset; to be embarrassed


azolve nm =atascamiento (de un conducto) // Acción y efecto de azolvar o azolvarse, cegar o cegarse un conducto con alguna cosa. (DMex, I:160) clogging

azotar vt =cerrar bruscamente // -… le avientan el equipaje, le azotan la puerta … (A.Salazar, 176) to slam

azquel / azquil nm (NAH) // Hormiguita que almacena semillas y alimentos de cocina. (C.Sandoval Linares, 5) ant

**azteca adj y nmf invar (NAH) // … los aztecas habían desarrollado considerables capacidades artísticas para principios del siglo XV. (A.Riding, 1985:37) Aztec

azul: los azules / los de azul nm (usu pl) fam =policía // Nada menos que 3 mil “azules” … serán incorporados .. al servicio de la ciudadanía … (El Heraldo de México, 5-2-95:9)-… han de ser los de azul … dice, mientras con los dedos simula colocar una plaquita de policía al frente de su gorra. (A.Salazar, 143) policeman; cop


(Fin de esta selección)