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”. (http://education.guardian.co.uk/tefl/story/0,5500,955964,00.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. (www.turkishdailynews.com.tr/archives.php?id=6639 – 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. (www.iht.com/articles/ap/2007/10/17/africa/ME-GEN-Syria-Israel.php).
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. http://voanews.com/english/archive/2001-11/a-2001-11-28-33-UN.cfm
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.) (www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/asia/afghanistan/1363941/Hopes-for-peace-rise-with-new-translator.html)
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: http://accurapid.com/journal/11media.htm)
(to be continued)