Mistranslation and Misinterpreting -10. Interpreters, Translators, and Politics in the Media Spotlight Again

My earlier blogs Mistranslation 3 (13 June 2008), 4 (23 June 2008) and 5 (17 July 2008) were on the topic of the Interpreter (or Translator) as scapegoat or centre of media attention in national and international political affairs. A recent case may be added to this growing list.

The screening of the documentary Stolen at the Sydney Film Festival in June 2009 created a snowballing controversy which lasted two months and may still be reverberating as the documentary is shown in other countries. By the time the film was re-screened at the Melbourne Film Festival on 31 July 2009, the controversy had become so heated that the Australian ABC recorded a 20 minute Q and A session after the screening. (References will follow later in a group for further study.)

In the background of the discussion is a long-festering African post-colonial dispute which began in the mid-1970s when the Spanish Government ceded its Protectorate of Western Sahara (Sahara Occidental) to Morocco and Mauritania. (The case has some parallels with the East Timor saga (Timor Leste), which began at the same time but reached a settlement a decade ago. In fact, at one point, the President of East Timor, José Ramos Horta became involved. See reference below.)

The complex controversy arises from the conflicting points of view of the Moroccan Government and its supporters and the views of the (rebel) Frente Polisario Freedom Movement and their partisans. Also active in the debate were a number of Western Saharans (Saharawis) who have migrated to and settled in Australia and belong to the association, Australian Western Sahara Association, AWSA). Others also joined in the debate.

However, the major point of interest for those of us interested in translation and interpretation matters is the accusation that some of the recorded dialogue was incorrectly translated or transcribed from the local Hassaniya language into English, and also in part, the question of interpreter competence. This charge led to the accusation that some of the statements of one of the interviewees from a refugee camp were misrepresented by the film makers. The evidence offered is not easy to analyse but may be worth the attention of independent experts.

The basic details of this case may be studied by following these references:

1. Australian ABC TV, 7.30 Report, 15 June 2009

“Bitter dispute over Stolen documentary
Australian Broadcasting Corporation Broadcast: 15/06/2009 Reporter: Matt Peacock

A bitter dispute has erupted over the accuracy of a taxpayer-funded feature documentary screened at the Sydney Film Festival. The film, called ‘Stolen’, features the story of Fetim Sellami and her family, who live in a refugee camp in the Algerian Sahara Desert. Fetim Sellami has been flown to Sydney by the independence movement that runs the camp, to enable her to denounce her depiction in the documentary as a slave, and the allegation that such slavery is widespread in the camps.”

1 (a). The Question and Answer Session (after the July screening)
ABC Radio Movie Time, 31 July 2009

2. The detailed response by the Australian Western Sahara Association (AWSA), consisting of 42 pages, mainly of transcripts and compared translations.

3. Relevant blogs on the Nuseiba blogsite
(a) Western Sahara and Faitim’s Story (30 June, 2009) (Followed by many comments.)

“Control of the territory is being fought between the Kingdom of Morocco and the Polisario Liberation Front (PLF). Since 1991 most of the territory is controlled by Morocco, with the remainder controlled by the PLF (backed by neighbour Algeria.).”

(b) Mistranslations and Finger-Pointing – Revisiting Stolen (August 2, 2009). Also with many comments.

“A couple of weeks ago my post on the documentary Stolen generated a whole discussion about whether or not slavery exists in the Tindouf refugee camps in Western Sahara. Is there, isn’t there, it went on and on (even though I distinctly remember saying the post wasn’t discussing whether or there was slavery, but rather about the abuse of Fetim’s story for the uses of others.) But never mind. I decided to reserve my opinion on the existence of slavery in the region until after I watched the film. On Friday I had that opportunity (it was screened as part of the Melbourne International Film Festival) but unfortunately for Fallshaw and Ayala I’m still undecided about the whole issue …”

4. A President Intervenes: Timor’s link to a Saharan struggle by Jose Ramos-Horta (22 July, 2009)

This begins:
“As I visit Australia again, to attend this week’s opening of the Melbourne International Film Festival, I have been confronted by the outcry over the film Stolen, which will screen at the festival and which represents, in microcosm, the importance of truth in the struggle for justice. The film, which makes claims of widespread slavery in the Western Saharan refugee camps, represents many of the ugly realities of this central dynamic. It is a scenario I know only too well.
I have followed closely the question of Western Sahara for decades. In our years of struggle for independence, strong friendship and solidarity grew between the Timorese and the Saharawis. I have met many Saharawis and visited the Saharawi refugee camps and liberated areas twice. I did not see any form of slavery in those camps. Rather, what I know of the Saharawis is that they are enlightened and committed to their cause of freedom.
The situation of Western Sahara is perhaps not well known to Australians. For East Timorese, there are ties which make a mutual understanding easier to find. Both East Timor and Western Sahara were colonised by Iberian powers – Portugal and Spain, respectively; both have been identified by the United Nations as being ready for decolonisation; both were invaded, post-European withdrawal, by regional powers in 1975; both peoples have been subjected to widespread human rights abuses; and both have been caught up in global political trends not of their making.”

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