Mistranslation 5

More on ‘Blame the Translator / Interpreter’

In ‘Misinterpretations 3’ and ‘Mistranslation 4’, the distinction was drawn between real errors by interpreters and translators and those alleged by the administrative staff in the service of Heads of State, political leaders and other prominent persons in constant public view. The available evidence suggests that an admission – or accusation – of translator / interpreter error has become more or less standard bureaucratic procedure when a celebrity or an organisation needs to be rescued from the consequences of an unfortunate slip of the tongue or careless adlib picked up by the media. The ploy is also used to divert responsibility from insensitive and inappropriate statements (especially, as we have seen previously, by reckless public speakers). Also to be noted, especially in international politics, is the use of the ‘spin’ tactic of unjustly blaming interpreters or translators for something they did not say or write simply in order to replace one firmly stated public position with a substantially revised one to suit the (sometimes changing) circumstances. In all of these cases, the hapless self-effacing interpreter or translator is used by the apparatchiks as an expedient means of saving face for others. It is considered part of the job by some employers.

In later commentaries on mistranslations and interpreting errors (real and fabricated) in this series, similar examples of bureacratic ‘spin’ will be offered from the world of religion and spiritual matters. The following additional notes form part of the main collection of official (secular) manipulation of interpreting and translation as reported in the media and on the Internet.

A distracting faux pas in a meeting of national leaders was widely reported on 14 June 2008 in the Australian media. Readers of the Melbourne Age and The Australian learned that Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono was spared the diplomatic consequences of expressing his publicly stated wish to Australian PM Kevin Rudd that he hoped the Australian government’s advisory against travel in Indonesia (following the massacre of tourists by terrorist in Bali in 2002) would soon be lifted. The Age claimed that Indonesian Foreign Minister Hassan Wirajuda defused the incident by blaming the interpreter for adding the comment:

“The Indonesian interpreter is also in for an interesting time, after translating Dr Yudhoyono’s response on whether Australia should lift its travel warning. Dr Yudhoyono, the interpreter said, had told Mr Rudd he “would welcome the lifting of the travel warning”.

A presidential adviser dashed to catch Australian journalists before they left the palace. “The President didn’t say to lift the travel warning,” he said. “We leave it to the Australian Government to consider.” Foreign Minister Hassan Wirayuda then rang Australian ambassador Bill Farmer, asking him to tell Mr Rudd about the misquoting.”

The Australian reported as follows:

“Asked yesterday whether current advisories warning of possible terrorist attacks ought to be downgraded, Dr Yudhoyono said the bombers had been caught and security had improved.

Mr Rudd appeared to bristle when the translator said the Indonesian President believed the warnings should be revised.

“In Australia we have an independent body called the National Threat Assessment Centre,” Mr Rudd said. “The National Threat Assessment Centre comes to its own conclusions.”

Dr Yudhoyono’s spokesman said later there had been a mistranslation and within minutes Indonesian Foreign Minister Hassan Wirajuda told Australia’s ambassador to Indonesia, Bill Farmer, that Indonesia believed travel advisories were entirely a matter for Australia.

The confusion took the spotlight off business conducted at the summit, including the signing of the Australia-Indonesia forest carbon partnership and Dr Yudhoyono’s invitation to Mr Rudd to join him in chairing a meeting scheduled for Bali later this year to discuss governance issues.” (The Australian, 14 June 2008)

The account in the Brisbane Courier-Mail expanded on the details of the alleged mistranslation, with even more emphasis on the unfortunate interpreter:

“An interpreter’s mistake caused a minor diplomatic incident on the first day of Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s two-day visit to Indonesia.

The interpreter, a stand-in for an ill colleague, translated Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono as saying he was looking forward to Australia lifting its travel advisory warning tourists against visiting Indonesia.
“I can understand that it is the responsibility of a government to protect its citizens. But I do look forward that this advisory will be lifted,” the interpreter quoted Dr Yudhoyono as saying.
But Dr Yudhoyono had instead said that as the situation in Bali had returned to normal following terror bombings in 2002 and 2005 which killed more than 230 people, including 92 Australians, he looked forward to seeing more Australian tourists arrive.
A spokesman for Dr Yudhoyono explained the mistake to media immediately after the joint press conference between the two leaders at the presidential place.
Foreign Minister Hassan Wirajuda rang Australian ambassador Bill Farmer within an hour to convey the message to Mr Rudd that Dr Yudhoyono’s meaning had been lost in translation.”

A similarly embarrassing public remark by former South Korean leader Roh Moo-hyun to George W. Bush in November 2007 was technically erased in a similar way when a White House spokesperson blamed a “loss in translation” for the following incident (reported at

http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/f1ba739e-5aae-11dc-8c32-0000779fd2ac.html).

“George W. Bush sat in a leather chair beside South Korean president Roh Moo-hyun and told reporters about the “friendly and frank” closed-door meeting they had just finished.

But the diplomatic niceties started to go awry when Mr Roh, known for his maverick nature, took his turn to speak.

Mr Roh’s comments had already gone on much longer than Mr Bush’s when he leaned towards his counterpart and posed him a question in Korean.

A puzzled look spread across Mr Bush’s face as he peered around Mr Roh to hear the translator explain what had been said.

“I think I did not hear President Bush mention the – a declaration to end the Korean war just now,” the translator said on Mr Roh’s behalf. “Did you say so, President Bush?”

It sounded like the South Korean president was pressuring Mr Bush to make a promise to replace the 54 year-old armistice between the US and North Korea with a formal peace treaty. […]”

(to be continued)

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